U.S. Navy destroyer arrived off Somalia on Thursday to apply pressure for the release of an American ship captain taken hostage in the first seizure of U.S. citizens by increasingly bold pirates.
Gunmen briefly hijacked the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama freighter on Wednesday, but the 20 American crew retook control after a confrontation far out in the Indian Ocean, where pirates have captured five other vessels in a week.
The four gang members were holding the captain on the ship’s lifeboat and the crew were trying to negotiate his release.
“Our main concern remains the safe return of the captain and our latest communications with the ship indicate that he is unharmed,” said B.J. Talley, spokesman for the Danish-owned freighter’s operator, Maersk Line Ltd.
The U.S. warship Bainbridge arrived on the scene before dawn on Thursday, the company added. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said it had been called in to assist, and its negotiators were “fully engaged.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the lifeboat now appeared to be out of fuel.
“We are surrounded by warships and don’t have time to talk,” one of four pirates on the lifeboat told Reuters by satellite phone. “Please pray for us.”
The attack was the latest in a sharp escalation in piracy in the waters off lawless Somalia, where heavily armed sea gangs hijacked dozens of vessels last year, took hundreds of sailors hostage and extracted millions of dollars in ransoms.
The long-running phenomenon has disrupted shipping in the strategic Gulf of Aden and busy Indian Ocean waterways, increased insurance costs and made some firms send their cargoes round South Africa instead of the Suez Canal.
The upsurge in attacks makes a mockery of an unprecedented international naval effort against the pirates, including ships from Europe, the United States, China, Japan and others.
Pirates say they are undeterred by the foreign flotilla and will simply move operations away from the patrols.
“The solution to the problem, as ever, is the political situation in Somalia,” said analyst Jim Wilson, of Lloyds Register-Fairplay. Somalia has had no effective central control for 18 years.
“Until there is peace on land there will be piracy at sea.”
Maersk said its crew regained control of the Alabama on Wednesday when the pirates left the huge ship with one hostage, the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips. The rest of the crew were unhurt.
The ship was carrying thousands of tons of food aid destined for Somalia and Uganda from Djibouti to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was attacked about 300 miles off Somalia.
“We are just trying to offer them whatever we can, food, but it is not working too good,” second mate Ken Quinn told CNN of efforts to secure their captain’s release. He said the four pirates sank their own boat after they boarded the Alabama.
Then the captain talked the gunmen into the ship’s lifeboat with him. The crew overpowered one of the pirates and sought to swap him for the captain, Quinn told CNN.
“We kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up,” Quinn said. They freed their captive, he added, but the exchange did not work.
In Haradheere port, a pirate stronghold, an associate of the gang said the gunmen were armed and ready to defend themselves.
“Our friends are still holding the captain but they cannot move, they are afraid of the warships,” he told Reuters. “We want a ransom and of course the captain is our shield. The warships might not destroy the boat as long as he is on board.”
Abdi Sheikh and Joanne Allen
An American ship captain was freed unharmed Sunday in a swift firefight that killed three of the four Somali pirates who had been holding him for days in a lifeboat off the coast of Africa, the ship’s owner said.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said a pirate who had been involved in negotiations to free Capt. Richard Phillips but who was not on the lifeboat was in custody
Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, was safely transported to a Navy warship nearby.
Maersk Line Limited President and CEO John Reinhart said in a news release that the U.S. government informed the company around 1:30 p.m. EDT Sunday that Phillips had been rescued. Reinhart said the company called Phillips’ wife, Andrea, to tell her the news.
The U.S. official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment.
When Phillips’ crew heard the news aboard their ship in the port of Mombasa, they placed an American flag over the rail of the top of the Maersk Alabama and whistled and pumped their fists in the air. Crew fired a bright red flare into the sky from the ship.
A government official and others in Somalia with knowledge of the situation had reported hours earlier that negotiations for Phillips’ release had broken down.
Talks to free him began Thursday with the captain of the USS Bainbridge talking to the pirates under instruction from FBI hostage negotiators on board the U.S. destroyer. The pirates had threatened to kill Phillips if attacked.
Three U.S. warships were within easy reach of the lifeboat on Saturday. The U.S. Navy had assumed the pirates would try to get their hostage to shore, where they can hide him on Somalia’s lawless soil and be in a stronger position to negotiate a ransom.
Maersk Line said before news of the rescue broke that “the U.S. Navy had sight contact” of Phillips — apparently when the pirates opened the hatches.
Before Phillips was freed, a pirate who said he was associated with the gang that held Phillips, Ahmed Mohamed Nur, told The Associated Press that the pirates had reported that “helicopters continue to fly over their heads in the daylight and in the night they are under the focus of a spotlight from a warship.”
He spoke by satellite phone from Harardhere, a port and pirate stronghold where a fisherman said helicopters flew over the town Sunday morning and a warship was looming on the horizon. The fisherman, Abdi Sheikh Muse, said that could be an indication the lifeboat may be near to shore.
The district commissioner of the central Mudug region said talks went on all day Saturday, with clan elders from his area talking by satellite telephone and through a translator with Americans, but collapsed late Saturday night.
“The negotiations between the elders and American officials have broken down. The reason is American officials wanted to arrest the pirates in Puntland and elders refused the arrest of the pirates,” said the commissioner, Abdi Aziz Aw Yusuf. He said he organized initial contacts between the elders and the Americans.
Two other Somalis, one involved in the negotiations and another in contact with the pirates, also said the talks collapsed because of the U.S. insistence that the pirates be arrested and brought to justice.
Phillips’ crew of 19 American sailors reached safe harbor in Kenya’s northeast port of Mombasa on Saturday night under guard of U.S. Navy Seals, exhilarated by their freedom but mourning the absence of Phillips.
Crew members said their ordeal had begun with the Somali pirates hauling themselves up from a small boat bobbing on the surface of the Indian Ocean far below.
As the pirates shot in the air, Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members said.
Phillips was then held hostage in an enclosed lifeboat that was closely watched by U.S. warships and a helicopter in an increasingly tense standoff. On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the five hostages was killed.
Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the unfolding operations.
Early Saturday, the pirates holding Phillips in the lifeboat fired a few shots at a small U.S. Navy vessel that had approached, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The official said the U.S. sailors did not return fire, the Navy vessel turned away and no one was hurt. He said the vessel had not been attempting a rescue. The pirates are believed armed with pistols and AK-47 assault rifles.
“When I spoke to the crew, they won’t consider it done when they board a plane and come home,” Maersk President John Reinhart said from Norfolk, Virginia before news of Phillips’ rescue. “They won’t consider it done until the captain is back, nor will we.”
In Phillips’ hometown, the Rev. Charles Danielson of the St. Thomas Church said before the news broke that the congregation would continue to pray for Phillips and his family, who are members, and he would encourage “people to find hope in the triumph of good over evil.”
Reinhart said he spoke with Phillips’ wife, who is surrounded by family and two company employees who were sent to support her.
“She’s a brave woman,” Reinhart said. “And she has one favor to ask: ‘Do what you have to do to bring Richard home safely.’ That means don’t make a mistake, folks. We have to be perfect in our execution.”