US NAVY using Scan Eagle UAV to keep eyes on pirates.
09 Apr 2009 15:25:58 GMT
* U.S. navy destroyer on scene
* FBI joins efforts to free American captain
* U.S.-flagged ship heads to Kenya after brief hijack
By Abdi Sheikh and JoAnne Allen
MOGADISHU/WASHINGTON, April 9 (Reuters) - Somali pirates defied international naval powers on Thursday to keep an American ship captain hostage on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean after their first seizure of U.S. citizens.
The increasingly bold gunmen briefly hijacked the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama freighter on Wednesday, but the 20 American crew retook control after a confrontation far out at sea, where pirates have captured five other vessels in a week.
Four gang members were holding the captain, Richard Phillips, on the ship's lifeboat after he apparently volunteered to be a hostage for the sake of his crew.
"What I understand is he offered himself as the hostage to keep the rest of the crew safe," his sister-in-law Gina Coggio told the ABC network. "That is what he would do, that's just who he is, and his responsibility as the captain."
The Pentagon said it was seeking a peaceful solution but was not ruling out any option in freeing Phillips.
His capture and the attack on his ship has once again focused world attention on Somali piracy, as happened last year when gunmen seized a Saudi supertanker with $100 million of oil on board, and a Ukrainian ship with 33 tanks.
Yet the attacks have been happening for years, reaching unprecedented levels in 2008, and pirates are holding more than 200 other hostages on captured ships.
Reached by Reuters via satellite phone, the pirates on the lifeboat sounded desperate as they watched a U.S. warship and other foreign naval vessels close to them. "We are surrounded by warships and don't have time to talk," one said. "Please pray for us."
The Danish-owned freighter's operator Maersk Line Ltd
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said it had been called in to assist, and its negotiators were "fully engaged".
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the lifeboat now appeared to be out of fuel. An East African maritime group said the Maersk Alabama was on its way to Kenya's Mombasa port and would reach there in a couple of days.
The attack was the latest in a sharp escalation in piracy in the waters off lawless Somalia, where heavily armed sea gangs hijacked dozens of vessels last year and extracted millions of dollars in ransoms.
The Saudi and Ukrainian boats fetched about $3 million each.
The long-running phenomenon has disrupted shipping in the strategic Gulf of Aden and busy Indian Ocean waterways, increased insurance costs and made some firms send their cargoes round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal.
The upsurge in attacks makes a mockery of an unprecedented international naval effort against the pirates, including ships from Europe, the United States, China, Japan and others, who are patrolling off Somalia, mainly in the Gulf of Aden.
PIRATES HOLD CAPTAIN AS "SHIELD"
Pirates say they are undeterred by the foreign flotilla and will simply move operations away from the patrols, further out into the Indian Ocean.
"The solution to the problem, as ever, is the political situation in Somalia," said analyst Jim Wilson, of Lloyds Register-Fairplay. Somalia has been mired in civil conflict, with no effective central control, for 18 years.
"Until there is peace on land there will be piracy at sea."
Maersk said its crew regained control of the Alabama on Wednesday when the pirates left the ship with the captain.
The ship was carrying thousands of tonnes of food aid destined for Somalia and Uganda from Djibouti to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was attacked about 300 miles (500 km) off Somalia.
"We are just trying to offer them whatever we can, food, but it is not working too good," second mate Ken Quinn told CNN of efforts to secure their captain's release. He said the four pirates sank their own boat after they boarded the Alabama.
Then the captain talked the gunmen into the ship's lifeboat with him. The crew overpowered one of the pirates and sought to swap him for the captain, Quinn told CNN.
"We kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up," Quinn said. They freed their captive, he added, but the exchange did not work.
In Haradheere port, a pirate stronghold, an associate of the gang said the gunmen were armed and ready to defend themselves.
"Our friends are still holding the captain but they cannot move, they are afraid of the warships," he told Reuters. "We want a ransom and of course the captain is our shield. The warships might not destroy the boat as long as he is on board."
Pirates there said two boats full of gunmen had left the port to go and support their surrounded colleagues.
"We are afraid warships will destroy them before they reach the scene," one told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Washington bureau and Daniel Wallis, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne, editing by Mark