Somali Pirates Capture American Sea Captain

Pentagon officials say the American crew may be back in control of a hijacked ship off the coast of Somalia. Video by AP
Pirate Attacks Off Somalian Coast
Pirate Attacks Off Somalian Coast
SOURCE: | By Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso - The Washington Post - April 9, 2009
By Stephanie McCrummen and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 9, 2009

NAIROBI, April 9 -- An American warship early Thursday reached the scene of a Somali pirate attack on a U.S.-operated container ship, according to U.S. officials, who said the pirates fled with the captain while the unarmed American crew regained control of its ship.

Indirect negotiations were underway with the small group of pirates who were holding the captain in one of the ship's lifeboats in the Indian Ocean after orchestrating the first seizure of a U.S. crew in more than 100 years.

"It's still a fluid situation right now, and we're hoping to get it resolved quickly," said Kevin Speers, a spokesman for the ship's operator, Maersk Line, which is based in Norfolk, Va. He added that the crew was safe and that the ship, the Maersk Alabama, which had been hauling food aid to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, remained in the area.

It was the sixth such attack this week and one of 66 this year by Somali pirates, a collection of shrewd businessmen and daring opportunists who have pulled off a series of spectacular seizures using high- and low-tech gear, from satellite phones and rocket-propelled grenades to battered wooden skiffs and rickety ladders.

In the past year, their booty has included the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and antiaircraft guns, and the MV Sirius Star, a 300,000-ton, 1,000-foot-long Saudi oil tanker that is the largest ship to be seized in history.

The pirates have drawn an international flotilla of at least 20 naval ships to the busy shipping lanes off Somalia's coast, mostly in the Gulf of Aden. That seemed to stem the attacks for a while. But Wednesday's seizure about 500 miles to the south suggested that the pirates were shifting their operations to the Indian Ocean.

"It's an incredibly vast area, and basically we're seeing pirates in more than a million-square-mile operating area," said Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain. "So while the presence of naval vessels has had an effect, we continue to say that naval presence alone will never be a total solution. It starts ashore."

On Tuesday, the 5th Fleet's commander, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, issued an advisory warning of "several recent attacks that occurred hundreds of miles off the Somali coast" and stating that "merchant mariners should be increasingly vigilant when operating in those waters."

The notice also warned that "despite increased naval presence in the region, ships and aircraft are unlikely to be close enough to provide support to vessels under attack. The scope and magnitude of [the] problem cannot be understated" because of the enormous size of the area.

The attack on the Maersk Alabama occurred Wednesday about 200 miles southeast of the coastal town of Eyl in Somalia, where a newly elected transitional government is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency with ties to al-Qaeda. The three main pirate networks -- based partly in Eyl -- are controlled by clan-based militias, which have remained separate from the Islamist insurgent group known as al-Shabab.

Four or five pirates in what one Defense Department official described as a "fishing skiff" attacked the 17,000-ton shipping vessel, setting off a skirmish. The crew managed to tie up one of the pirates, but the others escaped with the ship's captain, Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt., in what the official described as a life raft. The pirates may have sunk their skiff when they boarded the ship, the official said.

The captain had a line-of-sight radio that allowed him to communicate with the ship, and after about 12 hours, the crew and pirates had negotiated a "one-for-one swap" via radio, the official said.

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