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Somali militia say negotiating over S. Korean ship

Written by: Staff

NAIROBI, Apr 13 (Reuters) Somali militia holding a South Korean trawler and a 25-man crew they accuse of fishing illegally said today the boat's release was being negotiated with Seoul.

But a local militia spokesman, reached in remote northern Somalia by telephone from Nairobi, would not confirm a regional maritime official's report that they were seeking a 400,000 dollars payment for the ship.

''We are yet to agree on money,'' said the spokesman from a coastal village near where the ship was being held.

''Talks between us, the South Korean government and the company are going on and I am optimistic they will end well,'' he said. The spokesman asked for his name not to be used but his identity was verified by maritime sources.

In a separate incident, traders at Mogadishu's El Maan seaport told Reuters that Somali gunmen in boats pretending to be port escorts had hijacked an Indian dhow carrying 1,300 tones of rice about 40 km out at sea.

''We do not have more details but it is sure the boat was hijacked by gunmen,'' said a member of the Showqi trading agency which was receiving the rice.

The crew of the 361-tonne fishing vessel 628 Dongwon-ho includes nine Indonesians, eight South Koreans, five Vietnamese and three Chinese, according to South Korea.

It says the vessel was seized on April 4 by eight armed assailants in two speedboats, the latest in a string of hijacks in lawless Somalia's notoriously dangerous offshore waters.

Agents for the ship have gone to the region to negotiate.

Also reached by satellite phone today, the trawler's South Korean captain, Sung Sik Choi, told Reuters he was unaware of why the ship was seized.

''My ship and crew are in good condition and we eat good food,'' Choi said from his vessel off the village of Obbia, northern Somalia. ''No problem at all.'' Andrew Mwangura, of the Seafarers Assistance Programme, a Kenyan-based organisation representing sailors in the region, said the gunmen were demanding 400,000 dollars through clan elders.

''The elders said the amount was not ransom but a fine for fishing illegally in Somali waters,'' Mwangura told Reuters. ''I think both parties will finally agree on a figure... All the ships captured in Somalia have to pay to be released.'' While gunmen operating along Somalia's long coastline are often referred to as pirates some of them say they are acting as legitimate coastguards to prevent foreign plundering of their waters.

Somalia has been without central government and run by warlords since the 1991 ousting of former president Mohamed Siad Barre.

Reuters DKS BST2345

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