FBI negotiators are being called Thursday to help in the hostage situation off Somalia where an American captain is being held by pirates who highjacked his U.S.-flagged cargo ship, then escaped with him in a lifeboat when the crew retook the vessel.
“FBI crisis negotiators stationed at Quantico, Va., have been called by the Navy to assist with negotiations with the Somali pirates,” said FBI spokesman Richard Kolko.
He also said the agency is”fully engaged in this matter” and that itshostage rescue team, known as HRT, has already been deployed to assist in negotiations.
The team — a branch of the agency’s Critical Incident Response Group — can be deployed anywhere in the world within four hours of notification by the FBI director or a designated representative. Agents are charged with rescuingU.S. citizens and others being held against their will by a hostile force, either terrorist or criminal in nature.
A Navy destroyer reached the scene earlier Thursday morning. However, it is unclear whether the FBI negotiators will join the U.S. sailors.
Kevin Speers, a spokesman for the ship company Maersk, said the armed pirates have yet to make demands to the company for the return of Capt. Richard Phillips, according to the Associated Press.
The incident, which occurred off the Horn of Africa, is the first such attack on American sailors in roughly 200 years. However, it is the most recent in a string of attacks by pirates who have become increasingly brazen over the past year in the waters off Somalia. Pirates are still holding 14 ships and as many as 200 crew members.
U.S. defense officials have said they were weighing “all options” but have yet to intervene.
The USS Bainbridge and at least five other vessels arrived on the scene in the pre-dawn hours Thursday.
The seizure of the 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama, which was carrying U.S. food aid to Mombasa, Kenya, was the first involving Americans but the latest in a string of attacks by pirates who have become increasingly brazen over the past year in the waters off Somalia. Pirates are still holding 14 ships and as many as 200 crew members.
They appear to have underestimated the Americans aboard the Maersk Alabama.
Second officer Ken Quinn told CNN that the crew overcame the hijackers and took one of the pirates into custody, but freed him in a failed exchange for their captain, Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt.
“We took one of the pirates hostage,” Mr. Quinn said by phone. “We had one of their hostages and we kept him for 12 hours. We returned him, but they didn’t return the captain. … It’s not working too good.”
The captains as of Thursday morning was still in radio contact with officials.
“We are on pins and needles,” said Gina Coggio, 29, half-sister of Phillips’ wife, Andrea, as she stood on the porch of his one-story house Wednesday in a light snow, according to the Associated Press. “I know the crew has been in touch with their own family members, and we’re hoping we’ll hear from Richard soon.”
Phillips surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safety of the crew, Mrs. Coggio said. “What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage. That is what he would do. It’s just who he is and his response as a captain.”
U.S. counterterrorism and defense officials said they were closely monitoring the situation and that they were concerned the pirates might move their hostage to the mainland, where he could be handed over to other nefarious groups connected to terrorist organizations in the region.
“In the past we haven’t seen a strong nexus between piracy and terrorism, [but] we cannot rule it out,” a U.S. counterterrorism official said. “There is a possibility that pirates could link up with terrorists and take crew members back to Somalia, but we have not seen that to date.”
The official added that it was “a very fluid situation.” He spoke on the condition he not be named because of the sensitivity of the case.
U.S. military officials told a congressional panel last month that pirate attacks by Somali clans off the country’s 1,800-mile coastline spiked last summer, as international commercial shipping increased through the Gulf of Aden and central government control in Somalia collapsed.
With private shipping lines paying large ransoms to rescue their crews and vessels, the piracy surge has included spectacular raids such as the November capture of the Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star. The ship was released Jan. 10 after a ransom payment was made by airdrop.
The U.S. Navy recently spearheaded the creation of a joint task force of about 20 nations, including China and Russia, to help police the region, said Vice Adm. William E. Gortney. He told the House Armed Services Committee last week that the beefed-up patrolling had cut into the number of successful pirate attacks in 2009, but could not eliminate them.
“Ultimately, piracy is a problem that starts ashore and requires an international solution ashore,” he said, noting the weakness of civil and security forces in Somalia, which has not had a strong central government in decades.
As of early April, he said, Somali pirates were holding 123 international hostages for ransom.
The admiral said the challenge for the international naval force is patrolling an area roughly four times the size of Texas.
U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen told the Associated Press that the closest U.S. ship at the time of the hijacking was 345 miles away.
“The area we’re patrolling is more than a million miles in size. Our ships cannot be everywhere at every time,” he said.
NATO has five warships that patrol the region alongside three frigates from the European Union, U.S. defense officials told The Washington Times. The U.S. Navy normally has five to 10 ships on station off the Somali coast. The navies of India, China, Japan and Russia are also taking part in patrols.
U.S. officials said the Maersk Alabama was sometimes contracted by the Defense Department to move cargo, but that was not the case at the time of the hijacking.
A U.S. defense official familiar with the ship called it a “bucket of bolts.”
“Anyone can catch the ship; it’s not that fast,” he said.
Another U.S. official familiar with the situation said crews in American-flagged vessels are receiving threat warnings and recommendations on how to avoid capture by pirates, including firing shots if pirate boats appear on the horizon.
Ships are being told to have armed sentries on watch when passing the Somali coastline, take recommended routes to avoid areas where the pirates are known to be operating, maintain zigzag routes if approached by pirate motor boats, and to increase speed.
“If pirate ships cannot safely approach the vessel due to the wake, then they are unable to board and take the ship,” the U.S. official said.
Rick Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which trains mariners how to prevent such attacks, said it’s similar to scaring away burglars.
“Keep all the lights on, turn the radio up loud, look alive, walk the deck, go fast and change course,” Mr. Gurnon said.
Mr. Gurnon said the Maersk Alabama was equipped with a sound cannon — which when fired is so loud that it can pierce an eardrum — but had no other weapons.
“It’s a pretty easy target for a pirate,” Mr. Gurnon said. “Imagine a ship the size of the Empire State Building lying on its side, and there are only 20 people inside - one third are asleep, one third are working inside with no windows, and one third are on watch. So there are maybe two people walking the decks and paying attention.”
Mr. Phillips graduated from the academy in 1979, and chief mate Shane Murphy, who graduated in 2001, spoke to cadets at the academy three weeks ago about the risk of pirate attacks.
“He said attacks were almost a daily occurrence. Talk about irony — now his ship gets seized,” Mr. Gurnon said.
Mr. Murphy called his wife Wednesday morning and said he and the crew were safe, Mr. Gurnon said, so they were surprised to hear later that the captain had been taken hostage.
Mr. Murphy, who is second in command, was leading the negotiations. Asked whether the academy teaches hostage negotiations, Mr. Gurnon replied, “No.”
Mr. Murphy’s father, Joe, teaches mariner security at the academy.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, said Wednesday that the Somali pirate attacks are becoming “more frequent and more brazen” despite the increased U.S. and international naval operations.
“Clearly the situation requires an increase in the international effort to combat piracy,” said Mr. Skelton, who last month called for the creation of a global “counterpiracy league” under the auspices of the United Nations.
• David Sands contributed to this report.