Slightly over two years ago we posted about the hijacking of the Ukranian ro/ro Faina by Somali pirates. The pirates were surprised to discover that the ship was loaded with arms, including 33 Russian T-72 battle tanks. The pirates claimed that the arsenal was headed for the regional government in southern Sudan. The governments of the Ukraine and Kenya vehemently denied that this was the case, claiming that the arms were intended to be delivered to the Kenyan military. We now know from documents released by Wikileaks that the pirates were telling the truth and the Ukrainians and Kenyans were not.
Pirates’ Catch Exposed Route of Arms in Sudan
According to several secret State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks, the tanks not only were headed to southern Sudan, but they were the latest installment of several underground arms shipments. By the time the freighter was seized, 67 T-72 tanks had already been delivered to bolster southern Sudan’s armed forces against the government in Khartoum, an international pariah for its human rights abuses in Darfur.
Bush administration officials knew of the earlier weapons transactions and chose not to shut them down, an official from southern Sudan asserted in an interview, and the cables acknowledge the Kenyan officials’ assertions that they had kept American officials informed about the deal. But once the pirates exposed the arms pipeline through Kenya, the Obama administration protested to the Ukrainian and Kenyan governments, even threatening sanctions, the cables show.
The revelations about the tanks — the ones taken by the pirates are now sitting in Kenya, their fate unclear — come at one of the most delicate times in Sudan’s history, with the nation, Africa’s largest, on the verge of splitting into two. On Jan. 9, southern Sudanese are scheduled to vote in a referendum for their independence from northern Sudan, representing the end of a 50-year war. Huge quantities of weapons have been flowing to both sides, mainly to the north, turning the country into one of the most combustible on the continent. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently called it “a ticking time bomb.”
While Kenyan newspapers and other publications have written about the arms shipment since the pirate episode, confirmation that the government of southern Sudan was the recipient has raised concerns among diplomats that the news could further inflame tensions.