NAIROBI, July 26 (Reuters) - Pirates who seized a ship loaded with food destined for hungry Somalis are now interested in its cargo of rice instead of the ransom they earlier demanded, the vessel's shipping agent said on Tuesday.
Seaborne Somalia militiamen hijacked the MV Semlow last month as it steamed toward the northern port of Bossaso carrying 850 tonnes of rice donated by Japan and Germany to the U.N.'s World Food Programme.
The food was to help thousands of Somalis hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean after an undersea earthquake off north Indonesia.
The pirates initially demanded $500,000 ransom for the eight Kenyan crewmembers, Sri Lankan captain and Tanzanian engineer.
But they have now changed their mind, said Karim Kudrati, a director of the Motaku Shipping Agency which chartered the MV Semlow.
"They first demanded ransom but now they want the food," Kudrati told Reuters by phone from the company's offices in the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
"I don't think they can now offload the consignment because the vessel is still at sea and the weather is not good."
A World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman said she could not confirm whether the hijackers were interested in the cargo instead of ransom.
A leader of the hijackers, Mohamed Abdi Hassan, told Reuters on Monday the eight Kenyans would be released following talks with Kenya's ambassador to Somalia, Mohamed Abdi Affey.
Hassan did not say when the hostages would be released.
Affey declined to comment on the matter when telephoned by Reuters.
Kudrati, who said the hostages were in good health, said Affey had told him the Kenyan crew were to be released on Monday, but had no confirmation.
"We have daily radio conversations with them ... they are safe and are treated well .. I spoke with the captain of the ship yesterday -- he was worried because he's not among those to be released," Kudrati said.
Hassan had said the engineer and captain would have to remain aboard to steer the ship into port.
Somalia has been synonymous with insecurity since warlords overran the country of approximately 10 million in 1991, carving it into fiefdoms after ousting dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
The International Maritime Bureau has classed Somalia's waters as some of the world's most dangerous, with frequent hijackings.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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