Fri December 10, 2010
National Security

U.S. Considered Strike On Pirate-Seized Ship

Bush administration officials considered military action against Somali pirates who seized a ship carrying tanks and other weapons in 2008, according to diplomatic cables newly released by WikiLeaks.

The cables released late Thursday show how desperate the U.S. was to prevent the weapons from ending up in the hands of the Somali militant group Al-Shabab.

The Ukrainian freighter MV Faina was en route to Kenya with weapons bound for Southern Sudan when pirates captured it off East Africa in September 2008. Two days later, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a cable to U.S. diplomats in Ukraine, Russia, Latvia and Kenya asking them to gather those countries' views "with respect to possible United States military action to prevent the hijackers from delivering the Faina's cargo into Somalia."

"Such intervention could include disabling fire against the vessel or equipment being used to offload" it, the message read. Rice said military action would be a last result and that if the pirates "simply hold the vessel for ransom, as they have in the past, we would not intervene in this manner."

The U.S. has rarely used military action after a vessel is seized because it could endanger the hostages.

The Faina was carrying 33 tanks, 42 anti-aircraft guns, 36 rocket-propelled grenades, six rocket launchers and 13,000 rounds of 125 mm ammunition, the cable said. The hijacked crew included 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and a Latvian.

The pirates released the vessel and its crew in February 2009 after getting $3.2 million in ransom. The payment ended a four-month standoff that brought U.S. and Russian warships together off the Somali coast.

At the time of the hijacking, the Kenyan government said the weapons were destined for its military and denied the pirates' claim that the cargo was meant for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which controls the semi-autonomous south of the country. The country's mainly Christian and animist southern region has fought two wars against the Arab-dominated north.

Despite official denials, cables dating from July 2009 show that the U.S. was made aware that the shipment was actually destined for Sudan.

An official in the Government of Southern Sudan, whose name was redacted in the released cable, acknowledged that "he pressed Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula on the need to expedite delivery to South Sudan of tanks off-loaded from the MV Faina."

The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi has refused to comment on any of the documents made public by WikiLeaks, which recently released hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables that have embarrassed U.S. officials.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.