Ukraine President Yushchenko meets returning pirate hostages

Viktor YushchenkoKiev - Twenty seamen held hostage for three months by Somali pirates arrived in Ukraine on Friday to be met by President Viktor Yushchenko.

The 17 Ukrainian, 2 Russian, and single Latvian seaman landed at Kiev's Borispyl airport after an eight-hour flight from Keyna.

Their ship, the MS Faina, docked in the Kenyan port Mombasa on Thursday. Pirates operating from Somalia's Puntland coastline had held the Faina's hostage since September 25.

Yushchenko and crew relatives met the seamen as they disembarked onto the runway. Some of the Ukrainians were wearing US-military issue fatigues.

"The main thing, is that they are alive," Yushchenko said.

The Ukrainian President in comments aired on Channel 5 television said that his country would send forces to aid an international anti- piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden region.

"We have taken the decision to join the multinational forces... and we must find resources to do this," he said.

The body of the ship's Russian captain, who died of health problems shortly after the pirates captured the vessel, remained in Kenya and would be transported to Moscow at a later date, the Interfax news agency reported.

The Faina's crew secured release after payment of a 3.2-million- dollar ransom to the pirates, funneled through Ukraine's national secret police agency the SBU.

The ransom was, according to Yushchenko, the largest yet paid to pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden.

Yushchenko's critics in recent days have claimed the Ukrainian government's intervention in negotiations between the pirates and the Faina's owners caused the price of the final ransom paid to double.

Yushchenko speaking at the airport rejected the claims, calling the sailors' safe return home "an unqualified success."

The vessel was carrying 32 T-72 tanks and other military exports from Ukraine to Kenya. The final destination of the weaponry was rebel groups in Sudan, according to news reports denied by the Kenyan government. (dpa)