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The vessel at the centre of one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of recent piracy has again found itself at the heart of an international dispute in one of the world’s most unstable places.

The Belize-flagged, Ukrainian-owned MV Faina, a ro-ro ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2008 while transporting a shipment of 33 T-72 tanks to the fledgling government of South Sudan, leading to an international diplomatic crisis, has been cited as the reason why its sister ship, MV Etel, has been arrested in the Libyan port of Benghazi.

The Etel was arrested on 18 July, shortly after discharging a shipment of 220 cars, following claims by a group of Benghazi-based businessmen that they had been “robbed” of a shipment of 597 cars due to arrive in Libya on the Faina earlier this year.

According to the businessmen, the Faina had loaded the $16m consignment of 597 cars in the Jordanian port of Aqaba in March and set sail for Benghazi. However, after transiting the Suez Canal the vessel changed course and arrived in the Ukrainian port of Ilichivsk at the end of April.

A Ukrainian government source said  the Faina had been arrested at Ilichivsk while authorities there launched a criminal investigation.

The source said: “It is a very puzzling crime with these vehicles. The vehicles were arrested upon arrival in the Ukraine and not returned to Libya. It is complicated. The boat sailed under one flag, owned by a different company, and [the] crew is Ukrainian. It is a criminal case that was launched in Ukraine and is going through the courts.”.

Both vessels are operated by Ukrainian company Tomex Team, although they have different registered owners, and the Etel flies the St Kitts-Nevis flag. Its 19-strong Ukrainian crew have been confined to the vessel and, following an incident last week when it was boarded by an angry mob of locals, have had to have security for protection.

Benghazi port manager Mustafa Al-Abar said: “The captain had a problem. He called [on the] radio and said people were making trouble for him in the accommodation block. Angry people went onto the boat – that’s why we put security officers to be between people and crew.”

The crew are currently understood to be safe, although exactly who is holding the vessel – it could be the port authority, a local militia or national authority – remains unclear.

“We have no indications that anything bad has happened. This situation is stable on the ship, so far. It has been quite safe for crew, if they stay on board the vessel, and they haven’t experienced any trouble,” the Ukrainian source continued.

However, the general security situation in Libya’s second city is chaotic – on Friday alone there were three assassinations of leading political figures. The following day saw a major riot at the Kuayfia Prison, 10km to the east of Benghazi, which resulted in 1,200 prisoners escaping, and yesterday two huge car bombs ripped through the city centre.

According to Libyan sources, the businessmen had paid for the cars, as well as terminal handling charges and other port dues in Aqaba before the Faina set sail, and the arrest of the Etel and its crew is in retaliation for the loss of the 597 cars. They are demanding either the return of the cars or the money.

The Faina made international headlines in 2008 when it was hijacked by Somali pirates en route from Ukraine to the Kenyan gateway of Mombasa. It was carrying 33 T-72 tanks, as well as a consignment of RPGs, small arms and ammunition. Fears that the weapons could be commandeered by pirates or fall into the hands of the Somali jihadist group Al-Shabaab sparked a major diplomatic crisis.

According to a series of US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, US diplomats and intelligence officers were in contact with the Russian, Ukrainian and Belizean governments over securing the release of the vessel, which was finally freed, along with the weapons, after the pirates reportedly received a $3.2m ransom.

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