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Somali Pirates Capture American Sea Captain
Pirate Attacks Off Somalian Coast
But "something went wrong," the official said. "The pirates got their guy back and kept the [captain]. That's where we now stand."
News of the seizure trickled out in short cellphone calls from crew members to their families in the United States. Marianne Murphy, the mother of First Mate Shane Murphy, said she was more terrified that her son would "try to be a hero" than she was of the pirates.
"We have a nickname for Shane -- 'Shanbo,' like Rambo," said Murphy, speaking from her home in Plympton, Mass.
Defense and administration officials spent much of Wednesday in apparent confusion over what was happening on the ship. The Maersk Alabama crew members were also in touch with their company and journalists who managed to get through to them, leaving military officials initially to get updates of the fast-moving situation from television reports. Pentagon officials began the day saying the incident was over, only to be contradicted later by better-informed Maersk officials.
A spokesman for the nascent government of Somali President Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, denounced the attack but had no independent information on it.
The attack also highlighted the logistical challenge of patrolling the waters off Somalia, whose coast is roughly the length of the East Coast of the United States. The costly problem of protecting container ships hauling a variety of goods, including food, tanks and fake Gucci handbags, has drawn an unusual force of naval vessels from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and India, among other nations.
But according to Campbell, the U.S. Navy spokeswoman, it would take 60 naval ships -- many more than are currently deployed -- to adequately guard the commercial vessels traversing the Gulf of Aden. The area where the pirates are now operating is about five times that size.
The USS Bainbridge, a destroyer, was about 300 miles away at the time of the attack. In addition to various weaponry, the Bainbridge is equipped with helicopters and other surveillance capability.
The defense official said the Navy also was "maintaining watch" on the ship and the smaller vessel with P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, which can view minute details from far above the sea.
Even with that sort of sea power in the region, Campbell noted that at least three shipping companies have fended off pirate attacks recently using relatively low-tech methods. One simply zigzagged, outmaneuvering the pirates, who typically attack in 15-foot skiffs. Another used flares and a water hose. The third used ordinary barbed wire.
"These boats are usually armed to the teeth with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and automatic weapons, but the method of boarding is literally tilting a ladder and climbing," she said. "In this case, when they got to the top of the ladder, the barbed wire was there."
If past pirate seizures are an indication, military action is unlikely, and negotiations over ransom could drag on for weeks or months. Pirates are holding 18 ships, said Andrew Mwangura, coordinator for the East African Seafarers Assistance Program based in Mombasa.
Usually, pirates ferry their hostages to the coast and employ semiprofessional negotiators to deal with ransoms. Speer, the spokesman for Maersk, said the pirates had not contacted the company.
Last year, private shipping companies paid roughly $150 million in ransom to pirates, who use the money to fund lavish lifestyles and real estate investments in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Ian Shapira in Washington and special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Nairobi contributed to this report.