- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

The crew of the Maersk Alabama reluctantly left the ship's captain - still held hostage in a small lifeboat by Somali pirates - hundreds of miles away, as the U.S. cargo ship docked at a Kenyan port Saturday evening.

Navy SEALs guarded the 17,000-ton U.S.-flagged ship as it pulled into port in Mombasa, four days after pirates tried to hijack the ship and ended up taking Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, hostage.

Many of the 19 crew members cheered as they reached land. They said that as the pirates boarded the cargo ship, Capt. Phillips of Underhill, Vt., told them to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men.

“He saved our lives,” second mate Ken Quinn of Bradenton, Fla., declared from the ship as it docked. “He's a hero.”

Back in the United States, Capt. Joseph Murphy, father of the ship's new captain, said the crew was “disappointed” to leave Capt. Phillips behind.

“The crew was very disappointed that they had to leave the captain behind and are very concerned about his safe return,” Capt. Murphy told reporters in Buzzards Bay, Mass., after speaking by phone with his son, Shane Murphy, who took command of the vessel after Capt. Phillips was taken hostage.

“I'd like to thank Captain Phillips and his family for his courage and tremendous sacrifice. He has done everything he could possibly do, and he has saved our son,” Capt. Murphy said. “We know that he will survive, because he will never give up.”

The situation intensified Saturday when pirates in the lifeboat, believed to be armed with pistols and AK-47s, fired shots at a small Navy vessel that had approached, the Associated Press reported, citing a U.S. military official. No one was hurt, and the Navy vessel turned away, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The U.S. sailors did not return fire, he said, adding that the United States had not approached in a rescue attempt.

As the Maersk Alabama - which was carrying food aid to Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda - pulled into the Mombasa port, the crew of an Italian-flagged tugboat was being held by pirates, who seized it in a new attack.

The Italian tugboat was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia's north coast Saturday as it was pulling barges, said Shona Lowe, a spokeswoman at NATO's Northwood maritime command center outside London.

The Foreign Ministry in Rome confirmed that 10 of the 16 crew members are Italian. The others are five Romanians and a Croatian, according to Micoperi, the Italian company that owns the ship.

The two hijackings did not take place near each other, and a piracy specialist said they did not appear related, the AP reported.

On Friday, Capt. Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat and tried to swim to freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon.

Because Capt. Phillips thwarted them, his captors are in an unusually vulnerable situation, drifting in a lifeboat more than 300 miles from shore with only one hostage and in sight of two U.S. warships.

A Nairobi, Kenya-based diplomat, who receives regular briefings on the situation, told the AP that the four pirates holding Capt. Phillips had tried to summon other pirates from the Somali mainland. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition on anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said the pirates have been trying to reach the lifeboat.

He said at least two American ships and a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft have been attempting to deter pirate ships and skiffs from contact with the lifeboat.

A Somali who described himself as having close ties to pirate networks told the AP that pirates had called in four commandeered ships with hostages from nations such as the Philippines, Russia and Germany.

A second Somali man who said he had spoken by satellite phone to a pirate piloting a seized German freighter also told the news agency that the pirate captain had reported being blocked by U.S. forces and was returning Saturday to the pirate stronghold of Harardhere in Somalia.

Abdirahman Osman, a resident of the town who says he knows the pirates well, said the pirates returned home later Saturday. He said the pirates told him they had abandoned their plan to help fellow bandits on the lifeboat because it was surrounded by U.S. forces.

Two U.S. officials said FBI agents are investigating the Somali pirates who are holding Capt. Phillips hostage, raising the possibility of federal charges against the men if they are captured. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

The captain of the USS Bainbridge also has been getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators, and talks have taken place between him and the pirates, U.S. officials said.

The Bainbridge was joined Friday by the USS Halyburton, which has helicopters, and the huge, amphibious USS Boxer was expected soon after, the defense officials said. The Boxer, the flagship of a multinational anti-piracy task force, resembles a small aircraft carrier. It has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers, and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.

On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed.

France's defense minister promised an autopsy and investigation into the death of the hostage killed during the commando operation, which freed four other captives and was prompted by threats that the passengers would be executed. Two pirates also were killed. Three pirates were captured and are to be brought to France for criminal proceedings.

Somali pirates are holding about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau, a piracy-watchdog group. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Maersk Alabama.

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