Somali pirates who seized a Ukrainian ship laden with military hardware last week remained at large on Tuesday, even as they denied reports that three of their own were killed in a shootout aboard the ship.
Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program said there was an unconfirmed report that three Somali pirates were killed Monday night in a dispute over whether to surrender to U.S. warships that have surrounded the ship.
Pentagon officials later verified the report.
But a spokesman for the pirates insisted there was no truth to the account.
"We didn't dispute over a single thing, let alone have a shootout," pirate spokesman Sugule Ali told the Associated Press by satellite phone.
The 21-person crew aboard the ship includes 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and a Latvian. One of the crewmembers died on Sunday of an apparent heart attack, reported the Associated Press.
The pirates have demanded a $20-million US ransom for the cargo ship Faina and its cargo of 33 Soviet-designed tanks and weapons, which they hijacked on Sept. 25 as it was passing the Gulf of Aden off the Indian Ocean en route to the Kenyan port of Mombasa. The gulf is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
The San Diego-based USS guided missile destroyer Howard has been watching the pirate ship for several days and has spoken to the pirates and crew by radio.
On Monday, U.S. naval officials said several other U.S. ships and helicopters had joined the watch, but declined to give details. Russia has also dispatched a warship to the area, but it will take about a week to get there.
Fears of arms landing in militant hands
The U.S. fears the armaments aboard the ship could end up with al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants in Somalia if they are allowed to be unloaded in the country. Militants there have led 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.
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.
"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.
The pirates, in an interview with the New York Times, said they were only interested in money and had no knowledge that the ship contained an estimated $30 million US of weaponry.
Agence France-Presse quoted Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet, as saying the armaments were bound for Sudan. That claim has been denied by Sudanese, Ukrainian and Kenyan officials.
Kenya has insisted since the start of the standoff the arms were being sent to them as part of a deal with the Ukraine government.
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.