By Stephanie McCrummen and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 15, 2009 5:26 PM
MOMBASA, Kenya, April 15 -- Somali pirates Wednesday attempted to commandeer another U.S. cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, but the attack was thwarted, and the ship is headed toward port here with naval guards, U.S. Navy officials said.
In a separate incident Wednesday, French naval forces captured 11 pirates in the Indian Ocean after foiling their attempt to hijack a Liberian-flagged cargo ship, the French Defense Ministry announced.
In retaliation for U.S. naval operations against them, Somali pirates threatened to hunt down American-flagged ships and kill their crew members, the Associated Press reported.
Faced with escalating pirate attacks, the U.S. government Wednesday announced a series of steps aimed at cracking down on pirate bases on the Somali coast, expanding the international response to piracy and freezing the pirates' assets.
Lt. Nathan Christensen, the deputy spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said the guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge, which had led the rescue of the U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama last week, was five hours away from the Liberty Sun but responded when the alert of the attack was received.
The pirate attack occurred about 285 nautical miles southeast of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, Christensen said. The pirates had departed by the time the Bainbridge arrived. It was not immediately clear how the Liberty Sun, which reportedly carried a cargo of food aid, thwarted the assault.
The pirates fired grenades and automatic weapons at the freighter, which sustained some damage, according to its owner, Liberty Maritime Corp.
The cargo ship carries a crew of about 20, and all were reported safe. Crew members barricaded themselves inside the ship's engine room, the same tactic used by the Maersk Alabama crew, AP said.
"We are under attack by pirates, we are being hit by rockets. Also bullets," Liberty Sun crewman Thomas Urbik, 26, wrote his mother in an e-mail during the pirate assault, the news agency reported. "We are barricaded in the engine room and so far no one is hurt. [A] rocket penetrated the bulkhead but the hole is small. Small fire, too, but put out."
A security contingent from the Bainbridge boarded the Liberty Sun and will provide a guard until it reaches the port of Mombasa.
The Bainbridge is also on the way to Mombasa, where it will drop off Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, who was held captive by pirates for several days. Navy officials said the two ships are not sailing together but are traveling along the same path.
The diversion to help the Liberty Sun apparently will slow Phillips's reunion with his crew. Most of them flew back to the United States earlier in the day and are expected to arrive late Wednesday night at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County.
White House officials said several of the families of the Maersk Alabama crew members were given a tour of the White House Wednesday. It was not clear whether President Obama met with them during the tour.
White House officials said there were no plans for Obama to meet the crew members themselves when they land at Andrews, which is eight miles east of Washington. Obama is scheduled to fly to Andrews Thursday morning by helicopter before boarding Air Force One for a trip to Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago.
One of the pirates whose gang attacked the Liberty Sun said Wednesday his group was specifically targeting American ships and sailors, AP reported.
"We will seek out the Americans, and if we capture them we will slaughter them," AP quoted a 25-year-old pirate based in the Somali port of Harardhere as saying. "We will target their ships because we know their flags," said the pirate, who gave only his first name, Ismail. "Last night, an American-flagged ship escaped us by a whisker. We have showered them with rocket-propelled grenades."
Ismail did not take part in the attack, AP said. It was not immediately clear whether his threats were genuine.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the attacks on the Maersk Alabama and the Liberty Sun were "just the most recent reminders that we have to act swiftly and decisively to combat this threat." She told reporters: "These pirates are criminals. They are armed gangs on the sea. And those plotting attacks must be stopped, and those who have carried them out must be brought to justice. . . . We may be dealing with a 17th-century crime, but we need to bring 21st-century solutions to bear."
She also declared, "The United States does not make concessions or ransom payments to pirates." Clinton said an interagency steering group that includes the Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence community would meet Friday to consider responses to the threat. The State Department is also sending an envoy to Brussels next week for an international conference on Somalia with the aim of getting Somali authorities "to assist us in cracking down on pirate bases and in decreasing incentives for young Somali men to engage in piracy," she said.
She called for "an expanded multinational response" and "better coordination," as well as efforts to secure the release of seized ships, free crews currently being held hostage and track and freeze pirate assets.
A U.S. diplomatic team will engage with officials of Somalia's weak transitional federal government and regional leaders in Puntland, the region of northeastern Somalia from which many pirate groups operate.
"We will press these leaders to take action against pirates operating from bases within their territories," Clinton said.
In addition, "because it is clear that defending against piracy must be the joint responsibility of governments and the shipping industry, I have directed our team to work with shippers and the insurance industry to address gaps in their self-defense measures," she said.
The French Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said a French naval frigate captured 11 pirates and a "mother ship" they were using Wednesday, a day after French forces prevented the group from attacking the Liberian-registered cargo ship Safmarine Asia.
According to an account posted on the Defense Ministry's Web site, French forces from the frigate Nivôse seized the 30-foot pirate mother ship early Wednesday about 500 nautical miles east of Mombasa after a French surveillance helicopter spotted the vessel Tuesday and the French navy observed it overnight. The helicopter played a role in foiling the attack on the 623-foot Safmarine Asia, the ministry said.
The pirate mother ship had 17 barrels of fuel on board and was accompanied by two skiffs that the pirates used to launch their attacks, the statement said.
The 11 captured pirates were taken on board the Nivôse, it said. The frigate, which is participating in a European mission to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden, is part of a naval task force called Atalante that is made up of eight warships from France, Germany, Spain and Italy.
On April 10, a French naval contingent freed four French hostages, including a 3-year-old boy, and killed two Somali pirates in an assault on a French yacht, the Tanit, that had been captured by pirates April 4 in the Gulf of Aden. One French hostage was also killed in the raid, and three pirates were captured. A French official said Wednesday that the three captured pirates have been brought to the French city of Rennes to face justice.
The Defense Ministry, releasing new details of the operation to recover the Tanit, said military sharpshooters immobilized it before the raid by shooting at its mast and toppling its sails. The intent was to prevent the yacht from approaching the Somali coast, the ministry said.
Branigin reported from Washington.