The ceremony last Feb. 12 at the commercial seaport in Mombasa, Kenya, was a surprising one. When the Ukrainian-owned merchant ship Faina sailed into port, five months after its capture by Somali pirates and a week after its release, the Kenyan government rolled out the red carpet. Civilian officials and military officers lined the pier, and armed guards patrolled, as Faina's weary seafarers debarked. There were speeches and reluctant testimonies by Faina's senior crew before the strange gathering came to a halting end. Hundreds of vessels had been seized by Somali pirates over the previous decade, and their releases had rarely prompted an official celebration such as this.
The ceremony might have been inspired by the intensive media coverage that had surrounded the Faina's capture and the subsequent stand-off, pitting U.S. Navy warships against the merchant ship's ragtag captors. Faina's captain died of natural causes in the early days of the crisis. Ultimately, the vessel's owners paid a $3.2 million ransom, which itself is not unusual. Faina had stood out, among captured vessels, owing to her cargo: 33 Soviet-designed T-72 main battle tanks, plus other arms and ammunition -- all of murky provenance and ownership. To cynical observers, the June ceremony was seen as an opportunity for Nairobi to voice its official position regarding the weapons' origins and destination.
The pirates, reached by radio, had said the vessel's manifest showed the tanks were bound for the breakaway region of South Sudan, via Mombasa -- this according to U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Nate Christensen. The allegation, if true, would finger the Kenyan government in a sanctions-skirting arms race that some worry could result in another round of bloody civil warfare in Sudan. The country is already entangled in bitter fighting in its Darfur province, and in civil conflicts in neighboring Chad and Central African Republic. Kenyan military support for South Sudan, if confirmed, would also put Nairobi at odds with the U.S., one of its closest allies.