Thursday's seizure of the MV Faina off Somalia, a failed state seen as a key battleground in the war on terrorism, could bring dangerous effects across the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Piracy has become a lucrative criminal racket in impoverished Somalia, bringing in millions of dollars in ransom.
The pirates aboard the blue-and-white Ukrainian-operated freighter are demanding $20 million to release the ship, its 21 crew members, one of whom has died of an apparent heart attack, and its cargo of T-72 tanks, rifles and ammunition.
The ship, now anchored off Somalia's coast near the central town of Hobyo, apparently was destined for Sudan when armed pirates overtook it, likely from a speedboat, and climbed up the side of the ship.
"We maintain a vigilant watch over the ship and we will remain on station while negotiations between the pirates and the shipping company are going on," Lt. Nathan Christensen, a deputy spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, told The Associated Press.
Although the pirates have not been allowed to take anything off the Faina, they have been allowed to resupply, one U.S. official said when asked if those aboard needed anything such as food. The official declined to comment on whether the negotiations between the pirates and the shipping company are being monitored.
U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers have been deployed within 10 miles of the hijacked vessel and helicopters were circling overhead because of "great concern" over the possibility of the cargo falling "into the wrong hands," Christensen said. At one point on Sunday, the captain of the Faina said a warship was about two miles away.
"Our goal is to ensure the safety of the crew, to not allow off-loading of dangerous cargo and to make certain Faina can return to legitimate shipping," said Rear Adm. Kendall Card, commander of the task force monitoring the ship.
Although analysts say the pirates will likely be unable to unload the tanks, the other military hardware or a huge ransom could exacerbate the two-decade-old civil war in a country where nearly every building is pockmarked with bullet holes and all major civil institutions have crumbled.
The U.S. fears the armaments may end up with al Qaeda-linked Islamic insurgents who have been fighting the shaky, U.N.-backed Somali transitional government since late 2006, when they were driven out after six months in power. More than 9,000 people have been killed in the Iraq-style insurgency, most of them civilians.
Mark Bellamy, senior fellow in the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the pirates "are more interested in the money than disposing of the cargo."
"There's theoretically a possibility these weapons can fall into the wrong hands, but what is al Qaeda going to do with tanks in Somalia?" he said.
Christensen said the arms shipment was destined for Sudan - not Kenya, which had been claiming to be the arms' destination. "We are aware that the actual cargo was intended for Sudan, not Kenya," he said.
The 5th Fleet said the ship was headed for the Kenyan port of Mombasa, but that "additional reports state the cargo was intended for Sudan."
U.N. officials said there is no blanket arms embargo on Sudan's government, but any movement of military equipment and supplies into the Darfur region would violate a U.N. arms embargo if it were not first requested by the government and approved by the Security Council's Sudan sanctions committee.
The United States has expressed opposition to all arms transfers to Sudan, which it considers a state sponsor of terrorism. U.S. officials also have warned that the transfer of lethal military equipment to state sponsors of terrorism could lead to sanctions under U.S. law.
A Western diplomat in Nairobi, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, said the shipment was destined for autonomous southern Sudan - not Darfur - and did not violate the embargo.
Bellamy said it was not illegal to send weapons to the north or south Sudanese governments.
"There are lots of ways that weapons can get into Sudan, and this happens to be one boatload," Bellamy said. "The bigger thing is this continuing problem of piracy. It's been escalating for three years and they're becoming more brazen and emboldened. They're being paid and they then turn around and step up activities."
Jervasio Okot, spokesman for southern Sudan's mission to Kenya, said officials there were "surprised" to hear reports that the tanks and arms were destined for their region.
"Our government has no contract for the importation of arms with the Russian or Ukrainian governments," Okot said.
U.S. intelligence reports said the cargo's ultimate destination was Sudan and that Kenya was only a transit point, said a Western official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing classified material.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Valentyn Mandriyevsky said the ministry was not participating in the arms trade and didn't know where the cargo was bound. A spokesman for Ukraine's arms trader, Ukrspetexport, would not comment.
The 5th Fleet said the Faina is owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping Ukraine. A woman who answered phone at the Odessa-based shipping company and declined to identify herself said the company was not involved with the Faina.
Ukrainian and Russian media have said the Faina is operated by Tomex Team, a company based in Odessa. Its representatives have repeatedly declined to comment.
A Russian-based registry indicates the ship, sailing under a Belize flag, is also owned by Tomex Team. It lists the owner as Waterlux AG, with a Panama address but the Odessa phone number of Tomex Team, which it indicates is a subsidiary.
Russia dispatched a warship to the area, and it will take about a week to get there. The Neustrashnimy, or Intrepid, was in the Atlantic near the English Channel on Monday and will have to go through the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal to get to the Somali coast, said Capt. Igor Dygalo, a spokesman for the Russian navy.
Christensen said the U.S. Navy maintains "standard bridge-to-bridge communication" with Faina's crew via radio, but stressed that they are not taking part in or facilitating any negotiations.
The 21-member crew was from Ukraine, Russia and Latvia. A Latvian Foreign Ministry spokesman said one man from Latvia was a "non-citizen," a term authorities typically refer to ethnic Russians who have not obtained Latvian citizenship.
There have been 24 reported attacks in Somalia this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center. In June, the U.N. Security Council voted to allow international warships to enter Somali waters to combat the problem, but its 1,880-mile coastline - the longest in Africa - remains virtually unpoliced.
Nick Brown, the editor of Jane's International Defense Review, said it was unlikely the pirates would be able to use the tanks without specialized training and mechanics.
Mogadishu's arms markets are teeming with heavy weapons - including rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s and mortars.