One of the longest-running and highest-profile hijackings by Somali pirates appeared to be drawing to a close on Thursday as the hijackers began to leave a ship carrying 33 tanks bound for a mystery destination in east Africa.

However, the likely release of the Ukrainian-owned M/V Faina will increase speculation about where its cargo of Russian-made T-72 tanks, armaments and ammunition is bound.

The vessel was captured on September 25 by pirates who were reported to have demanded up to $35m for the release of the vessel and its crew. The captain, Vladimir Kolobkov, died of a heart attack shortly afterwards.

Negotiations over the vessel’s release are known to have grown very complex, with Ukraine’s government as well as the vessel’s owner becoming involved.

Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, which monitors piracy, said the vessel had not yet changed position but the crew were waiting for the last gunmen to disembark within hours.

Reports said the ransom paid had been $3.2m.

The Faina’s seizure in September highlighted the growing problem of piracy off Somalia’s coast. It was followed in mid-November by the capture of the Sirius Star, the largest vessel ever seized by pirates.

Kenyan and south Sudanese officials have denied the tanks were destined for autonomous Southern Sudan. However, the Kenyan armed forces have no history of using Russian military hardware and the final destination marked on the ship’s manifest, “GOSS”, seemed to support reports of an arms build-up by the government of South Sudan.

Kenyan officials claimed the acronym stood for General Ordinance Supplies and Security. A government spokesman yesterday refused to be drawn on the issue.

Kenya was the main regional broker in negotiations that led to a peace agreement between north and south Sudan in 2005, after decades of civil war. Speculation that it has been facilitating an arms build-up in the south over the past year has damaged its relations with Khartoum and compromised its position as a neutral arbiter in the region.

The Faina’s release will reduce to nine the number of vessels being held in Somali waters, from a high of 15 in November. Vessel hijackings have reduced sharply in recent months – only three vessels were taken during January, against nine in November.

However, it remains unclear whether the pirates have been deterred by recent poor weather in the Gulf of Aden, the area between Somalia and Yemen where most attacks take place, or have been put off by the increased naval presence in the area since the turn of the year. The most recent ship to be seized was the M/V Longchamp, a chemical tanker seized last week .

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