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Pirates Hold Up Food Aid to Somalia, Uganda, Kenya

The United Nations' World Food Program says the U.S.-flagged container ship anchored off the coast of Somalia is carrying items to feed hundreds of thousands of starving people in Somalia, Uganda and Kenya. The ship's captain is being held hostage by pirates, who seized the vessel and its crew of 20 Americans Wednesday as it sailed toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

World Food Program spokesman in Nairobi Peter Smerdon says there is concern that if the container ship, Maersk Alabama, cannot reach Mombasa soon, many people in the region may not get the foodstuffs they need to sustain them in the coming months.

Ship was carrying food for mothers, children

Smerdon says the WFP cargo includes more than 4,000 tons of corn-soya blend for malnourished children and mothers in Somalia and Uganda and nearly 1,000 tons of vegetable oil for refugees in Kenya. Smerdon says there are many more containers of food aid belonging to the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies.

"We need to keep a constant pipeline of food coming both to Somalia and to other countries in the region," said Smerdon. "Otherwise, we have to cut rations and people will go hungry. Basically, this amount of food would feed hundreds of thousands of people for a month. It is only a part of the basket of food we give people in the region. But it is an important part."

The Maersk Alabama was scheduled to arrive in Kenya on April 16. But, early Wednesday, the Danish-owned, American-operated ship was seized nearly 500 kilometers off the coast of Somalia by four armed hijackers. The hijacking was the first of its kind involving an American crew in modern history.

Pirates negotiating captain's release

According to reports, the crew disabled the ship and overpowered the pirates after they got on board. But the pirates took the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, and shoved off from the cargo ship in a lifeboat. The pirates are now reported to be negotiating for the captain's release.

A U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer arrived in the area, Thursday, with other vessels. In the past, military helicopters and surveillance aircraft have been used to take photographs of hijacked vessels and gather information.

Direct contact with pirates could bring quick end to drama

The head of the Mombasa-based East Africa Seafarers Association, Andrew Mwangura, tells VOA that no one knows what the pirates are demanding as ransom for the release of the ship's captain. But Mwangura says he believes the stand-off can be resolved quickly if the ship's owner, Denmark's A.P. Moller-Maersk, negotiates directly with the pirates.

"If they only establish direct contact with the pirates, it will not take time," he said. "But if they use a lot of third parties to be part of the negotiation team, then it will drag on and drag on for a long time."

In the past, Mwangura has been involved in numerous ransom negotiations between pirates and ship owners.

In 2008, pirates and their associates are said to have earned somewhere between $30 to $150 million in ransom, seizing more than 40 commercial and private vessels off the Somali coast.