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    Somali pirates may release Ukrainian ship, crew by Christmas

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    The Faina, a Ukrainian ship captured by Somali pirates in September, may be released by Christmas, a Ukrainian news agency reported on Thursday.

    KIEV, December 18 (RIA Novosti) - The Faina, a Ukrainian ship captured by Somali pirates in September, may be released by Christmas, a Ukrainian news agency reported on Thursday.

    An unidentified pirate spokesman was quoted by UNIAN as saying that the vessel and its crew could be released by Christmas if Ukraine was to get involved in negotiations directly.

    "I want Ukraine to understand what is going on here. There is a lot of concern that Ukraine has not been sufficiently represented during the three-month negotiations," the pirate spokesman said by telephone. "The negotiation team's goal is to help the Ukrainians [on board] to get home by Christmas."

    The crew is made up of 17 Ukrainians, three Russians and one Latvian.

    The Faina, carrying 33 T-72 tanks and other heavy weaponry, was seized by Somali pirates on September 25. The pirates initially demanded a $35 million ransom, but recent information suggests the figure has fallen to $3.5 million.

    "There hasn't been one Ukrainian involved in the negotiation process. There isn't a Ukrainian anywhere, no negotiator, no press," the representative said.

    The representative said that the pirates are refusing to have anything to do with the British lawyer who is representing Ukraine in the negotiations. "We want to have direct contact with the Ukrainians, not through a British lawyer, whose only interest is money," the pirate representative said.

    He also said that the ship was out of fuel. "I want you to know that the crew is free to move around. They can walk around on board the ship and they are all healthy. The problem is there isn't any fuel," he said.

    In response to the rise in pirate attacks off Somalia, the EU launched last week a joint task force, codenamed operation Atalanta, which involves eight countries, aimed at tackling piracy in the waters near the Gulf of Aden.

    Russia dispatched a frigate from the Baltic Fleet, the Neustrashimy (Fearless), to escort commercial vessels in the region in October following the surge in seizures. The Pacific Fleet destroyer Admiral Vinogradov will take over escort duties when the Neustrashimy's deployment finishes at the end of the year.

    The East African nation has been without a functioning government since 1991 and has no navy to police its coastline.

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