DALLAS (AP) ¿ StealthGas Inc. said Tuesday it delayed delivery of five ships used to carry liquefied natural gas, and separately it claimed that a customer improperly ended a contract to use one of its ships.

The Greece-based company said it won't take delivery of any new ships next year and postponed five deliveries to 2011 and 2012 after negotiations with the builder. StealthGas said it incurred no cost with the delays.

The global economic slowdown has hurt shipping, reducing the demand to transport goods and making it harder to finance fleet expansion.

Last fall, StealthGas had one of the largest backlogs of ships under order, at 24 in shipyards across Asia. But Harry Vafias, who heads the company, complained then that banks weren't providing financing, forcing shippers to use their own money.

Also on Tuesday, StealthGas said that Societa Cooperative di Navigazione a.r.l. "improperly terminated" a charter to use the Gas Ice. StealthGas said it was exploring all legal options and has had ships owned or controlled by the Italian company arrested to secure payment for the termination.

StealthGas said it has reached a one-year charter for a new ship due for delivery April 16 to a major Asian operator, which it did not name.

It also said that the charter on two other ships had been extended from May expirations until December, and a third ship's charter was extended from May 2009 until May 2010.

The average time charter equivalent rate for those four ships is $232,894 per month or $7,661 per day, StealthGas said.

StealthGas, the Nasdaq-traded arm of the Vafias Group, added 6 cents to $5.12 in morning trading.
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