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.
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.