- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

MOMBASA, KENYA (AP) - A cargo ship loaded with humanitarian aid was headed to Kenya under Navy escort Wednesday after evading pirates firing grenades and automatic weapons, the second unsuccessful hijacking attempt of a U.S. freighter in a week, officials said.

In defiance of President Barack Obama’s vow to halt their banditry, pirates have seized four vessels and some 60 hostages off the Horn of Africa since Sunday’s rescue of an American freighter captain from the drifting lifeboat where he was held hostage. If they had been successful Tuesday, the MV Liberty Sun would have been the fifth.

The Liberty Sun’s American crew was not injured in the attack but the vessel sustained unspecified damage, owner Liberty Maritime Corp. said in a statement Tuesday night.

“We are under attack by pirates, we are being hit by rockets. Also bullets,” crewman Thomas Urbik, 26, wrote his mother in an e-mail Tuesday. “We are barricaded in the engine room and so far no one is hurt. (A) rocket penetrated the bulkhead but the hole is small. Small fire, too, but put out.”

The Liberty Sun “conducted evasive maneuvers” to ward off the pirates before help arrived, said U.S. Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.

“That could be anything from zigzagging to speeding up to all kinds of things,” he said. “We’ve seen in the past that that can be very effective in deterring a pirate attack.”

A U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, responded to the attack but the pirates had departed by the time it arrived some five hours later, Navy Capt. Jack Hanzlik said.

After arriving on the scene, the Bainbridge sent “a small security detachment” onboard the Liberty Sun to ensure that its crew of about 20 mariners was safe, Christensen said. Urbik sent a follow-up e-mail to his mother “that said he was safe and they had a naval escort taking them in,” Katy Urbik said.

The Bainbridge is the same destroyer from which Navy SEAL snipers killed three pirates holding freighter captain Richard Phillips captive aboard the powerless lifeboat. A fourth pirate surrendered. Phillips had been held captive for five days after exchanging himself to safeguard his crew during a thwarted hijacking of the Alabama by the pirates last week.

The Bainbridge was carrying Phillips to Kenya when it was called to respond to the attack on the Liberty Sun. He was still on board when the Bainbridge arrived to help the Liberty Sun, Christensen said.

Phillips was to return home to the United States on Wednesday, after reuniting with his 19-man crew in the port city of Mombasa, according to the shipping company Maersk Line Ltd. It was not immediately clear how his detour would affect that plan.

The Liberty Sun, with its crew of about 20 Americans, was carrying humanitarian aid to Mombasa. Liberty Maritime said the ship set off from Houston and had already delivered thousands of tons of food aid to a port in Sudan.

“We commend the entire crew for its professionalism and poise under fire,” the Lake Success, N.Y.-based company said in the statement. President Philip J. Shapiro and chief financial officer Dale B. Moses declined to comment further.

Katy Urbik, said she was “very relieved and grateful to God for protecting him and to our Navy, and that we come from a country that can respond like that and protect our citizens.”

The brigands are grabbing more ships and hostages to show they would not be intimidated by Obama’s pledge to confront the high-seas bandits, according to a pirate based in the Somali coastal town of Harardhere.

“Our latest hijackings are meant to show that no one can deter us from protecting our waters from the enemy because we believe in dying for our land,” Omar Dahir Idle told The Associated Press by telephone.

After a lull at the beginning of the year because of rough seas, the pirates since the end of February have attacked at least 78 ships, hijacked 19 of them and hold 16 vessels with more than 300 hostages from a dozen or so countries.

The pirates say they are fighting illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters but have come to operate hundreds of miles from there in a sprawling 1.1 million square-mile danger zone.

Pirates can extort $1 million and more for each ship and crew. Kenya estimates they raked in $150 million last year.

A flotilla of warships from nearly a dozen countries has patrolled the Gulf of Aden and nearby Indian Ocean waters for months. They have halted many attacks but say the area is so vast they can’t stop all hijackings.

The Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is the shortest route from Asia to Europe and one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, crossed by more than 20,000 ships each year. The alternative route around the continent’s southern Cape of Good Hope takes up to two weeks longer at huge expense.

In an unusual nighttime raid, pirates seized the Greek-managed bulk carrier MV Irene E.M. before dawn Tuesday. Hours later, they commandeered the Lebanese-owned cargo ship MV Sea Horse.

On Sunday or Monday, they took two Egyptian fishing trawlers. Maritime officials said the Irene carried 21 to 23 Filipino crew and the fishing boats 36 fishermen, all believed to be Egyptian. A carrier the size of the Sea Horse would need at least a dozen crew, although the exact number was not immediately available.

Most ships are hijacked without a shot fired. Freed hostages report being treated well.

___

Associated Press writers contributing this report include Caryn Rousseau in Chicago, Jennifer Peltz in New York, Pauline Jelinek in Washington, Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia; Michelle Faul, Malkhadir M. Muhumed, Tom Maliti and Todd Pitman in Kenya; Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Adam Schreck in Manama, Bahrain; Robert Burns, Lara Jakes, Anne Gearan and Devlin Barrett in Washington; Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Maggie Michael in Cairo.


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