- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009


The captain of the U.S.-flagged ship held hostage in a lifeboat by pirates off the Somali coast attempted to escape Friday, but was recaptured after the pirates fired shots. Other pirates on ships hijacked from the area raced to the scene as reinforcements in the standoff.

The pirates want to link up with their colleagues — who are holding Russian, German, Filipino and other hostages — and get Capt. Richard Phillips to lawless Somalia, where they could hide him and foil a rescue, according to the Associated Press.

Capt. Phillips was piloting the 17,000-ton cargo ship Maersk Alabama on Wednesday when four armed pirates attempted to hijack the vessel, which was carrying U.S. food aid to Mombasa, Kenya. The crew, including at least 20 Americans, retook the ship and captured one of the pirates. The other pirates escaped overboard with the captain into an 18-foot lifeboat, in which they remained on Friday. The crew released the captured pirate Wednesday in a failed attempt to negotiate the return of their captain.

A Somali in contact with a pirate leader said Friday the captors want a ransom and if attacked are ready to kill the captain, the wire service also reports.

The Somali, who helped negotiate a ransom last year to pirates after they seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He said he has talked with a pirate leader in Somalia who helped coordinate the failed effort to seize the Alabama.

He said the pirate leader had been in direct contact with the lifeboat via a satellite phone but lost contact after Capt. Phillips’ captors threw the phone — and a two-way radio dropped to them by the U.S. Navy — into the ocean, fearing the Americans were somehow using the equipment to give instructions to the captain. They acted after Capt. Phillips’ failed effort to escape.

Also Friday off Somalia, France’s navy freed a sailboat seized last week by Somali pirates, but one of the hostages and two of the bandits were killed. French officials said three pirates were taken into custody. It was not immediately clear where the operation occurred but it did not appear to be near the standoff involving Capt. Phillips.

Captain Phillips jumped into the water during the night and tried to swim toward the nearby Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge. Initial reports said the pirates also jumped into the water to recaptured him.

U.S. military officials said the captain appeared to be in good condition and the pirates did not hurt him.

U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. David Petraeus said other U.S. warships also are headed to the area, more than 300 miles off Somalia’s Indian Ocean coast, according to the Associated Press.

“We want to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days,” he said.

The incident, off the Horn of Africa, is the first such attack on American sailors in roughly 200 years 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 as many as 14 ships and 200 crew members.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday he’s unsure what steps the Justice Department would be taken if the Somali pirates were captured.

“I think it’s too early to tell at this point,” he said. “There has not been an act of piracy, I think, against a United States vessel for hundreds of years. So I’m not sure exactly happens. We’ll obviously do what we have to do to ensure that the maritime right of this nation is protected.”

Mohamed Samaw, a resident of the pirate stronghold in Eyl, Somalia, who claims to have a “share” in a British-owned Maersk Alabama, said four foreign vessels held by pirates are heading toward the lifeboat.

A total of 54 hostages are on two of the ships — citizens of China, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia and Taiwan, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Samaw said two ships left Eyl on Wednesday. A third sailed from Haradhere, another pirate base in Somalia, and the fourth was a Taiwanese fishing vessel seized Monday that was already only 30 miles from the lifeboat.

He said the ships include the German cargo ship Hansa Stavanger, seized earlier this month. The ship’s crew of 24 is made up of five Germans, three Russians, two Ukrainians, two Filipinos and 12 from Tuvalu.

The Navy destroyer arrived Thursday and FBI negotiators are helping in the return of Capt. Phillips.

FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the negotiation team was dispatched from Quantico, Va. and that the agency is “fully engaged in this matter.”

A U.S. official said the negotiators are part of the Hostage Rescue Team, a branch of the agency’s Critical Incident Response Group, which can be deployed anywhere in the world within hours of notification by the FBI director or a designated representative. Agents are charged with rescuing U.S. citizens and others being held against their will by a hostile force, either terrorist or criminal in nature.

Kevin Speers, a spokesman for the ship company Maersk, has said the pirates have yet to make demands to the company for the return of Capt. Phillips.

U.S. defense officials have said they are weighing “all options” but have yet to intervene.

Ken Quinn, a Maersk Alabama crew member, told CNN on Wednesday the crew had the pirate captured for about 12 hours.

“We returned him, but they didn’t return the captain,” he said. “It’s not working too good.”

The captain as of Thursday was still in radio contact with officials.

“We are on pins and needles,” Gina Coggio, 29, half-sister of Phillips’ wife, Andrea, told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

Capt. Phillips surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safety of the crew, she said.

“That is what he would do,” Mrs. Coggio said. “It’s just who he is and his response as a captain.”

U.S. counter-terrorism and defense officials said they are concerned about the possibility of the pirates moving their hostage to the mainland, where he could be handed over to other nefarious groups connected to terrorist organizations in the region.

It remains unclear whether the motorized lifeboat still has gasoline.

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,” Adm. Gortney said.

He also said there is a weakness of civil and security forces in Somalia, which has not had a strong central government in decades.

As of early April, Adm. Gortney 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.

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 typically 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.

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.

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,” he 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,” he 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.”

Capt. 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.” Mr. Gurnon said. “Talk about irony — now his ship gets seized.”

David Sands contributed to this report.

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