Somali pirates holding a Ukrainian ship carrying military hardware are denying reports that a disagreement among the gunmen about what to do with the ship has led to a fatal shootout.  But as VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, the pirates on board are made up of militiamen from two rival clans, who have little in common.

Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali tells VOA that reports that a deadly firefight two days ago killed three pirates is a lie, being spread by people who do not know the situation aboard the hijacked ship.

Ali says the group remains unified and focused on talks with the ship's owners to secure the release of the MV Faina and her 20 crew members in exchange for a $20 million ransom.  

He says there has been no shooting whatsoever on the ship and there are no disagreements that would cause anyone to fire in anger.

The pirates say they had no idea that the freighter was carrying 33 Russian-built tanks and other military equipment when they seized it off the eastern coast of Somalia last Thursday.

Since then, several U.S. Navy warships and a Russian frigate have been deployed to the area to prevent the pirates from trying to offload the cargo and bring it ashore to a country already awash in arms and torn apart by civil war since 1991. The United States believes at least one Islamist group operating in Somalia has ties to the al-Qaida terror network and is eager to keep tanks and heavy weapons out of its reach.

On Monday, a maritime official based in Mombasa, Kenya, Andrew Mwangura, told reporters that the presence of warships had raised tensions among some 60 factional fighters that make up the pirate group and the shooting took place after an argument over whether to free the cargo and the crew.

Mwangura says that report comes from relatives of the pirates and is reliable.  He says there was another shooting incident on board the ship on Tuesday, but no one was hurt.

"It is true," he said. "There was a shootout yesterday and the day before yesterday, there was a shootout aboard the ship, whereupon three gunmen were shot dead by their own comrades because this ship is being held captive by two different clans." 

VOA sources in Somalia say some of the pirates on the ship belong to the Majarteen sub-clan of the Darod tribe.  Prominent Majarteen members include Somalia's interim government President Abdullahi Yusuf and the president of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland Adde Muse, who has been accused of profiting from pirate activities taking place off the coast of Puntland. 

Other pirates in the group belong to sub-clans of the Habre Gedir, which is itself a sub-clan of the larger Hawiye tribe.  The Hawiye and the Darod have a long history of rivalry in Somalia, and some of their top members in government have been locked in a bitter power struggle since they took power in late 2006 on the back of an Ethiopia-led military intervention.

Andrew Mwangura says the enormous ransoms being paid to free captured vessels have prompted many Somali clans to set aside their differences and cooperate in pirate activities.