WASHINGTON– Some 30 Russian tanks and various munitions aboard a Ukrainian vessel that was hijacked by Somali pirates Sept. 25 has caused serious concern for Defense Department officials, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters here today.

“[The Defense Department] has seen a dramatic increase in piracy in this area, and it is a matter of real concern,” Morrell said. “This particular vessel has on it a number of Russian tanks, ammo and [rocket-propelled grenades] and anti-aircraft weapons that raise this to another level of concern.”

The Ukrainian cargo ship, the Faina, was transporting an estimated $30 million of Russian military equipment to Kenya when it was taken over by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The fact that Kenya was receiving the weapons isn’t a concern for the United States, Morrell said, citing Kenya’s legitimate right to build up its self defense.

“We know [Kenya] as a government that is in good standing,” Morrell said, noting President Bush’s meeting with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki yesterday. “[Kenya} is a peaceful government with legitimate self-defense needs, so we have no reason to believe that this cargo was not destined to the government of Kenya as their president suggests.”

Preventing the munitions from ending up in the wrong hands is the main objective for U.S. officials, Morrell said, based on the uncertainty of whether or not the pirates would sell the munitions to terrorists.

“Our concern is making sure that this cargo does not end up in the hands of anyone who would use it in a way that would be destabilizing to the region,” he said, “and we have committed significant resources to make sure those objectives are met.”

Several ships from the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Naval Forces Central Command area of operations began pursuit of the Faina almost immediately after its hijacking and are monitoring the pirate’s activities. The U.S. warships have “enormous capabilities” and firepower, but the Defense Department is focused on a peaceful solution, Morrell said.

Russian naval forces reportedly are on their way to the site, but are not expected to arrive for several days. The United States has no issues working with the Russian navy and intends to cooperate candidly to ensure the munitions are kept out of terrorist hands, he said.

“[The United States] already has several U.S. naval vessels on scene, which have contained the vessel in question,” Morrell said. “We have what is necessary to deal with the situation at hand. It does contain Russian cargo, so we don’t have a particular issue with the Russians coming on the scene as well.

“In terms of the bigger picture of piracy and the problems it poses on commercial shipping in that area,” he continued, “it is one that the 5th Fleet has been working on and addressing.”

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WASHINGTON– Some 30 Russian tanks and various munitions aboard a Ukrainian vessel that was…