Source AP ©

Pirates celebrate Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr with US warships and helicopters nearby

The standoff in the Indian Ocean over a ship laden with tanks and weapons entered a sixth day Tuesday, with pirates claiming they were celebrating the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr despite being surrounded by American warships and helicopters.

No solution to their $20 million ransom demand for the Ukrainian cargo ship Faina was yet in sight.

"We are happy on the ship and we are celebrating Eid," pirate spokesman Sugule Ali told The Associated Press by satellite phone. "Nothing has changed."

Ali did not say whether the ship's 21-member crew, which includes Ukrainians, Russians and a Latvian, would be included in the feast that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. One crew member has died, of an apparent heart attack.

There were unconfirmed reports Tuesday of shootings on the ship. Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program said there was a report that three Somali pirates were killed Monday night in a dispute over whether to surrender, but he said he had not spoken to any witnesses.

Pirate spokesman Sugule Ali denied the claim Tuesday, telling AP, "We didn't dispute over a single thing, let alone have a shootout."

There was no way to independently verify either account. The U.S. 5th Fleet also said it had no new information to report on the standoff Tuesday morning.

Elsewhere in Somalia, pirates freed a Malaysian tanker Tuesday after a ransom was paid, according to a Malaysian shipping company.

The blue-and-white Ukrainian ship Faina has been buzzed by American helicopters since Sunday. Pirates hijacked the Faina and its cargo of 33 Soviet-designed tanks and weapons Thursday while the ship was passing through the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, en route to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

Ali said the vessel was surrounded by four warships but he could not identify where the ships were from. The San Diego-based USS guided missile destroyer Howard has been watching the pirate ship for several days and has spoken the pirates and crew by radio.

On Monday, U.S. naval officials said several other American ships had joined the watch, but declined to give details.

U.S. Navy officials said they have allowed the pirates to resupply the ship with food and water, but not to unload any of its military cargo, which included T-72 tanks, ammunition, and heavy weapons that U.S. Defense officials have said included rocket launchers.

The U.S. fears the armaments may end up with al-Qaida-linked Islamic militants who have been fighting an insurgency against the shaky, U.N.-backed Somali transitional government since late 2006, when the Islamists were driven out after six months in power. More than 9,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the Iraq-style insurgency.

"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.

Russia has also dispatched a warship to the area, but it will take about a week to get there.

American military officials and diplomats say the weapons are destined for southern Sudan.

The oil-rich south was promised a referendum in 2011 on independence from the rest of Sudan as part of a peace deal that ended a 21-year civil war three years ago. Southern Sudanese officials said they were "surprised" to hear reports that the tanks and arms were destined for them.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian shipping line MISC Berhad said Tuesday that Somalia pirates released the seized palm oil tanker, MT Bunga Melati 2, on Monday, two days after its first vessel was released.

Chairman Hassan Marican said a ransom was paid for both vessels but declined to reveal the amount. All 79 crew on both ships are safe but were traumatized and will undergo counseling, he said.

Piracy has become a lucrative criminal racket in impoverished Somalia, bringing in tens of millions of dollars a year in ransom. There have been 24 reported attacks in Somalia this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Most pirate attacks occur in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, to the north of Somalia. But recently pirates have been targeting Indian Ocean waters off eastern Somalia.

In all, 62 ships have been attacked in the notorious African waters this year. A total of 26 ships were hijacked, and 12 remain in the hands of the pirates along with more than 200 crew members.

International warships are patrolling the area and have created a special security corridor under a U.S.-led initiative, but attacks have not abated.