- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

UPDATED:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Somali pirates on Wednesday hijacked a U.S.-flagged cargo ship with 20 American crew members onboard, hundreds of miles from the nearest U.S. military vessel in some of the most dangerous waters in the world.

The 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama was carrying emergency relief to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was hijacked, said Peter Beck-Bang, spokesman for the Copenhagen-based container shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk.

It was the sixth ship seized within a week, a rise that analysts attribute to a new strategy by Somali pirates who are operating far from the warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden.

In a statement, the company confirmed that the U.S.-flagged vessel has 20 U.S. nationals onboard.

Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said that it was the first pirate attack “involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory.” She did not give an exact time frame.

It is not clear whether the pirates knew they were hijacking a ship with American crew members.

“It’s a very significant foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration,” said Graeme Gibbon Brooks, managing director of the British company Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service Ltd. “Their citizens are in the hands of criminals and people are waiting to see what happens.”

Brooks and other analysts interviewed by The Associated Press declined to speculate on whether American military forces might attempt a rescue operation.

When asked how the U.S. Navy plans to deal with the hijacking, Campbell said: “It’s fair to say we are closely monitoring the situation, but we will not discuss nor speculate on current and future military operations.”

Somalia’s notorious pirates faded from the headlines for the first three months of 2009 as a massive international naval force moved in. But the pirates have begun operating further away from warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden. And they no longer have to contend with the choppy waters that always plague the seas off Somalia in the early part of the year.

The U.S. Navy confirmed that the ship was hijacked early Wednesday about 280 miles (450 kilometers) southeast of Eyl, a town in the northern Puntland region of Somalia.

U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said the closest U.S. ship at the time of the hijacking was 345 miles (555 kilometers) away.

“The area, the ship was taken in, is not where the focus of our ships has been,” Christensen told the AP on the phone from the 5th Fleet’s Mideast headquarters in Bahrain.

“The area we’re patrolling is more than a million miles in size. Our ships cannot be everywhere at every time,” Christensen said.

Somali pirates are trained fighters who frequently dress in military fatigues and use speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and various types of grenades. Far out to sea, their speedboats operate from larger mother ships.

Most hijackings end with million-dollar payouts. Piracy is considered the biggest moneymaker in Somalia, a country that has had no stable government for decades. Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the London-based think-tank Chatham House, said pirates took up to $80 million in ransoms last year.

This is the second time that Somali pirates have seized a ship belonging to the privately held shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk. In February 2008, the towing vessel Svitzer Korsakov from the A.P. Moller-Maersk company Svitzer was briefly seized by pirates.

Before this latest hijacking, Somali pirates were holding 14 vessels and about 200 crew members, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Associated Press writers Barbara Surk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen; and Tom Maliti and Anita Powell in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.

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