Who really owns the hijacked battle tanks?

The pirated merchant ship MV Faina is seen from a U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser on Monday. Somali pirates holding a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 tanks reiterated their demands for a $20 million ransom on Tuesday and denied three of their members had died in a shootout. Photo/REUTERS

Doubts grew on Wednesday over official claims that the battle tanks hijacked by Somali pirates belonged to Kenya.

The authenticity of shipping documents presented by the Government to prove Kenya’s ownership was called into question — and investigations showed the cargo might in fact have been destined for South Sudan, as the US Navy has claimed all along.

Impeccable sources in Kenya’s military confided that the tanks and other arms — including anti-aircraft guns and rocket propelled grenades — were going to Mombasa only to be off-loaded and sent on to Juba, the South Sudan capital.

The seizure of the equipment, the source said, had put the Kenya Government in an awkward position because it was seen to be in breach of a UN embargo on sale of arms to Sudan.

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua declined to comment further when contacted on Wednesday, except to state: “There is nothing new, and if anything we will post it on our website.”

He added that he had not been given the latest information on the standoff between the pirates and the owners of the Ukrainian ship MV Faina, and refused to revisit the question of ownership of the 33 Russian-made T-72 tanks and other military hardware on board.

Dr Mutua, in an attempt to show the cargo belonged to Kenya, released on Monday evening photocopies of a bill of lading and a letter from the Ukrainian exporter about the seizure.

Efforts to establish the authenticity of the bill and the letter, allegedly received from Ukrainian state-owned arms dealer Ukrinmash appealing to the Kenyan government to “assume indispensable measures” to secure the hijacked ship and its cargo, were unsuccessful.

The only indication that the goods were Kenyan was a reference in the letter allegedly from a Ukrainian firm that quotes four invisible contracts dated between 2006 and 2008.

On the bill of lading, the consignee is indicated as Ministry of Defence and the owner as Waterlux AG. The Waterlux AG website shows that it is the owner of the vessel MV Faina, the hijacked ship.

The Nation sent questions to the Ukrinmash website address but none of them has been answered.

The questions included: “Are you in contact with the pirates?

“Are the pirates demanding ransom?

“Are you ready to pay?

“Which countries are helping you?

“Was the consignment destined for Kenya or Southern Sudan?”

It also emerged that Kenya might have been sucked into an arms stockpiling contest between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the South Sudan administration based in Juba.

Air force

Sources in South Sudan told the Nation that Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir — currently facing indictment for war crimes over the genocide in Darfur — has been spending huge amounts of money modernising his army, especially the air force.

South Sudan had responded by acquiring a wide range of military hardware including the tanks seized last week, the sources said.

The stockpiling appears to be linked to next year’s referendum, which will decide whether Sudan remains one unified state or splits into North and South.

In case of a split, the sharing of oil resources could trigger tension between the two new countries.

Investigations by the Nation found that despite repeated claims of ownership of the arms shipment by the Kenya Government, the Department of Defence was finding itself in an embarrassing position because their importing breaks most of its own procurement rules.

“Kenya’s defence policy is non-aggression, not war... our policy is to buy from the West, and that has not changed,” the source said.

The procurement rules, coupled with Kenya’s stated foreign policy and a check with the Ukrainian exporter and shipper, plus sources within the military indicate that the tanks were in fact on their way to transit to South Sudan, in spite of official Kenyan denials.

When the pirates seized the ship last Thursday, Mr Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers Association was quoted as saying that the cargo was destined for Southern Sudan and was the latest of three or four such shipments since last year.

The Nation established that the tanks started passing through Mombasa last year. On November 2, a train carrying 17 T-72 tanks derailed at Kokotoni about 30km from Mombasa, damaging five of them.

The accident, which happened shortly after 4am, prompted a military security operation at the scene.

The area was sealed off and army officers prevented the press from taking pictures. Then, on January 25, this year, 33 more tanks were ferried by train from the port during the height of the post-election violence.

As well as the Kenya Government, diplomats from Sudan and Ukraine dismissed reports that the arms were destined for Juba and insisted that they belonged to Kenya.

Senior military officials, who sought anonymity because they have been ordered not to speak about the issue, said the country’s defence policy had not changed since Independence.

According to them, Kenya’s armed forces have the primary role of defending territorial boundaries in line with the country’s policy of non-aggression.

Although the DoD has been buying arms, the Government does not encourage neighbours to stockpile weapons at the level seen recently.

Insiders in the DoD indicated that all officers were from Friday ordered not to discuss or speculate on the ship’s hijacking or its cargo.

According to the sources, Kenya has since Independence been acquiring its hardware from the West. Only recently did the Government turn to China to buy troop lorries, Y12 aircraft and guns.

Successive regimes have not warmed up to Russia in the past and anyone in government perceived to be friendly to the former Soviet bloc country is usually treated with suspicion

This was the case shortly after Independence when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was then seen as left-leaning, was accused by politicians in the then Kanu government of President Kenyatta as having imported arms from Russia — which later turned out to have been in transit to the Congo.

Import arms

“The Kenyatta Government did not entertain any suggestions to import arms from Russia while the Moi regime rejected offers by China to train military officers,” the source said.

The source said it would require a drastic change of government policy to change military hardware given that even the personnel must be trained before the equipment was acquired.

And the people in President Kibaki’s Government do not show any signs of turning to Russian hardware.

The DoD has an elaborate procedure for procuring arms and equipment.

Unlike in the past when DoD has procured military hardware, this time round, the Nation investigations found no information showing that a technical team or other military personnel from the department travelled to Ukraine to evaluate the T-72 tanks or for training.