- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

Somali pirates freed a Norwegian tanker Friday, succumbed to the French navy in another seajacking incident and raced reinforcements to the scene of a standoff with the U.S. Navy over an American merchant captain held hostage in a drifting lifeboat.

U.S. military officials said Capt. Richard Phillips appeared to be in good condition and the pirates did not hurt him after he leaped off the lifeboat early Friday and tried to swim toward the Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge. The pirates opened fire within sight of the destroyer, according to reports, and jumped into the water to retrieve their hostage.

Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder said he could not discuss details of the ongoing operations to free the hostage.

“We’re still monitoring the situation and assessing the options available to us,” Col. Ryder told The Washington Times. “U.S. federal agencies and the Navy are in constant communication with the Maersk Line,” owner of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama.

A pirate source in the Somali port of Haradheere told Reuters that the four pirates holding Capt. Phillips were asking for $2 million in ransom and a guarantee they will not be harmed. The source said other pirates who hijacked a German container ship, the Hansa Stavanger, a week ago were heading to the scene to bolster their pirate comrades.

“Knowing that the Americans will not destroy this German ship and its foreign crew, [the approaching pirates] hope they can meet their friends on the lifeboat,” said the pirate who, according to Reuters, has given reliable information in the past but asked that his name not be used.

Capt. Phillips’ 20-man crew took back their ship from pirates on Wednesday and released a pirate hostage in an attempt to get back their skipper. The container ship proceeded to its original destination, Mombasa, Kenya, while Capt. Phillips remained aboard the 18-foot lifeboat. The lifeboat was said to be low on fuel and provisions and drifting in the Indian Ocean.

The USS Bainbridge, a guided missile destroyer, and at least five other U.S. vessels were on the scene Friday, but it was not clear what action could be taken without jeopardizing the captain’s life.

The guided-missile frigate USS Haliburton had also arrived, Col. Ryder said. He noted there were a number of Navy assets, both sea and air, operating in the region and that “hundreds of military personnel are working on this operation.”

The FBI has also provided expert hostage negotiators.

Defense officials told the Associated Press that the USS Boxer, flag ship for a multination anti-piracy task force, was en route. Similar to a small aircraft carrier, the Boxer has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.

The standoff continued as France took action to end the seizure of a French sailing yacht off the Somali coast. French Defense Minister Herve Morin told a news conference Friday that the French navy stormed the craft, freeing several hostages including a child after the pirates threatened to kill them. One hostage and two pirates were killed during the assault, according to Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile, Somali pirates released the Norwegian tanker Bow-Asir and its 27-member crew, which had been held off the Somali port of Kiasmaayo since March 26.

“The chemical tanker Bow Asir was released on Friday, 10th April 2009. However, the ship is still sailing in dangerous waters,” Norway’s Salhus Shipping said.

“All crew are unharmed and we wish to thank them for their handling of this difficult situation,” the company said.

The Bahamas-registered vessel was carrying 20,000 tons of chemical products when it was boarded.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been escalating for months and has become a lucrative source of income for the lawless nation. In this month alone, Somali pirates have hijacked the U.S. container ship, the French yacht, a British-owned Italian-operated cargo ship, the German container ship, a Taiwanese fishing vessel and a Yemeni tugboat.

Altogether, the pirates hold more than a dozen vessels and as many as 200 captives.

The attack on the U.S. vessel, which was carrying American food aid to Kenya, was the first successful seizure of an American ship in almost two centuries.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Thursday he is not sure what steps the Justice Department would take 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.”

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.

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