MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia will allow foreign powers to use force if necessary against pirates who are holding a ship loaded with tanks for $20 million ransom, raising the stakes for bandits who are facing off against the United States and soon Moscow on the high seas.
Last week’s hijacking of the Ukrainian ship MV Faina — carrying 33 Soviet-made T-72 tanks, rifles, and heavy weapons — was the highest profile act of piracy in the dangerous waters off Somalia this year. The ship is surrounded by several U.S. warships and American helicopters are buzzing overhead.
Moscow also sent a warship to protect the few Russian hostages on board, but it will take a week to arrive off the coast of central Somalia, where the Faina has been anchored since Thursday. Most of the 20 crew are Ukrainian or Latvian; one Russian has died, apparently of illness.
‘‘The international community has permission to fight with the pirates,’’ Mohammed Jammer Ail, the Somali Foreign Ministry’s acting permanent director, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
He also said negotiations between the ship’s Ukrainian owners and the pirates were taking place by telephone, but that ‘‘no other side is involved in negotiations.’’
Somalia’s president, Abdullahi Yusuf, also urged foreign nations to help Somalis fight piracy.
‘‘The government has lost patience and now wants to fight pirates with the help of the international community,’’ he said Wednesday in a radio address.
In the past, the U.S. military has launched air strikes in Somalia and is known to have secretly sent special forces into Somalia to go after militants linked to al-Qaida.
In Washington, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to comment on any possible military operations but said the U.S. was continuing to monitor the situation and remains concerned that the cargo not fall into the wrong hands.
Whitman would not give details of any new or existing agreement the U.S. has with the Somalis.
‘‘(The U.S.) works closely with its partners in the region to identify, locate, capture and if necessary kill terrorists where they operate, plan their operations or seek save harbor,’’ he said.
Russia has used force in the past to end several hostage situations — sometimes disastrously, as in the 2004 storming of a school in Beslan, which resulted in 333 deaths, nearly half of them children.
But in Moscow, the Russian navy’s chief spokesman sought to play down the possibility of using force in Somalia.
‘‘Taking forceful measures, for obvious reasons, is an extreme measure, as this could create a threat to the lives of the international crew of the cargo ship,’’ the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Capt. Igor Dygalo as saying.
He said the frigate’s task was to protect Russian ships in the dangerous waters off Somalia and suggested it would mainly prevent further pirate attacks.
Lt. Stephanie Murdock, a U.S. 5th Fleet spokeswoman, said the Americans have not had any contact with the Russian ship yet but will when it arrives.
‘‘We will be happy to work with them once they arrive, it’s partly their crew and their cargo aboard,’’ she said by phone from Bahrain.
There was no reaction Wednesday from the estimated 30 hijackers on board the Faina to the prospect of facing some of the world’s most powerful navies. Their spokesman did not answer his satellite phone.
A day earlier, the pirates denied reports that an argument over whether to surrender led to a shootout that killed three pirates. Instead, the spokesman said, the pirates were enjoying a feast to end the holy month of Ramadan.
Piracy is rife off the coast of Somalia, emerging as a lucrative criminal racket brining in millions of dollars in ransom. The pirates rarely hurt their hostages, hoping instead to hold out for a huge payday.
And the ploy often works. A Malaysian shipping company confirmed it paid Somali pirates a ransom earlier this week to free two of its freighters.
In June, a U.N. Security Council resolution gave foreign nations’ ships permission to enter Somalia’s territorial waters to stop ‘‘piracy and armed robbery at sea’’ if their actions were taken in cooperation with Mogadishu’s government.
However, Ali said he was giving new permission Wednesday.
The dangerous cargo on the Faina has drawn worldwide attention, more so than the nearly 30 other hijackings off Somalia. While few believe the pirates will be able to unload any of the tanks, the Faina’s other military cargo or a huge ransom could exacerbate the two-decade-old civil war in a country where all major civil institutions have crumbled and hunger and drought ravage the impoverished population.
American military officials and diplomats say the weapons are destined for southern Sudan, but Kenyan officials insist the weapons are bound for their country.
The U.S. Navy says it wants to keep the arms out of the hands of militants linked to al-Qaida in Somalia, which is a key battleground in the war on terrorism. To that end, it has surrounded the Faina with half a dozen ships, including USS guided missile destroyer USS Howard.
A spokesman for the U.S. 5th fleet in Manama, Bahrain, the control point for the USS Howard, stressed that ‘‘while our ships remain on station in the area, we are not participating in negotiations between the pirates and the ship owners.’’
Most pirate attacks occur in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, north of Somalia. But recently pirates have been targeting Indian Ocean waters off eastern Somalia.
Some 62 ships have been attacked in the notorious African waters this year. A total of 26 ships were hijacked, and 12 remain in the hands of the pirates along with more than 200 crew members.
Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Nairobi, Kenya, Barbara Surk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Vladimir Isachenkov and Steve Gutterman in Moscow, and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.