At least $2 million paid to Somali pirates to free a Ukrainian cargo ship was provided by "unknown Ukrainians" headed by the president, and not the ship`s owners, a Russian newspaper reported on Monday, according to RIA Novosti.

According to the Kommersant business daily, a total of $4 million was paid to free the Faina, which was hijacked off the Horn of Africa on September 25, 2008, and released on February 5. Earlier it was reported that $3.2 million was paid, but the paper said an additional $800,000 was sent to the pirates for food and water.

The pirates had initially demanded a $35 million ransom for the vessel, which was carrying 33 T-72 tanks and other heavy weaponry to be delivered to Kenya.

"Without the help of the Ukrainian government, the ship owners wouldn`t have been able to do anything, and the Faina would still be in the pirates` hands without any guarantee of being released for a long time," said the editor of Sovfracht Maritime Bulletin, Mikhail Voitenko, who took part in the negotiations with the Somali pirates.

Voitenko said that it was not the ship owners, but "Ukraine that paid the Britons who until January were acting as moderators."

Kyiv denied accusations that it had paid a ransom. "The government cannot finance terrorism," the daily quoted the Ukrainian Security Council`s deputy secretary, Stepan Gavrish, as saying. "If Ukraine had paid the pirates, then that would have disrupted international society."

Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko said last week that negotiations on the ransom were near completion, but were twice disrupted because of outside interference. Because of that, it was decided to decrease the number of people who were informed on the operation. The daily reported Yushchenko as saying that the third phase of the operation was handled by its foreign intelligence service.

According to the daily, the decision to make the operation top secret was made in mid-January, after which the foreign intelligence service stopped passing information on to the Security Council`s Crisis Committee and other government bodies. That would explain why Ukraine`s Foreign Ministry for a long time said it knew nothing about the ransom money being paid to the pirates, the daily reported.

The crew of 17 Ukrainians, two Russians and one Latvian were met at the airport in Kyiv by family members and the president on Friday. The body of the Faina`s Russian captain, Vladimir Kolobov, who died of a heart attack soon after the hijackers seized the ship, will arrive home in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. His funeral is scheduled for Thursday.

According to the UN, Somali pirates carried out at least 120 attacks on ships in 2008, resulting in combined ransom payouts of around $150 million.

Around 20 warships from the navies of at least 10 countries, including Russia, are involved in anti-piracy operations off Somalia. The East African country, ravaged by years of civil war, has no functioning government.

RIA Novosti


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