Saturday, April 11, 2009
Friday, 10 April 2009
Somali pirates are sending help to gang members who are holding a U.S. ship captain hostage, while the European Union increased air patrols over the Indian Ocean to counteract a recent spate of piracy attacks. The pirates have made their first request for a ransom and are asking for safe passage in exchange for releasing the captain, Richard Phillips, Agence France-Presse reported today, citing an interview with a pirate.
A U.S. destroyer is continuing to watch over the pirates, who had briefly hijacked the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama about 250 miles off the Somali coast.
Any attempt to free the captain by force would result in his death, a man who called himself Da’ud and identified himself as one of the pirates, said in a telephone interview with Bloomberg from the area of Eyl, Somalia. He said he had been in contact with the four pirates who are holding the captain hostage on a lifeboat that has stalled, and that reinforcements are on the way.
“We sent reinforcement men to help them,” said Da’ud, who declined to give his full name. The extra pirates were in two groups, one of which was already at sea, he said.
Any new pirates arriving at the scene will be confronted by the destroyer USS Bainbridge, which has moved into the area and is seeing images fed to it from a drone flying over the lifeboat, the U.S. Navy said. A second warship, the frigate USS Halyburton, is bound for the scene.
Captain in Contact
Phillips has spent his second night in captivity and is still being held, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Jonathan Whittington said in an e-mail. He declined to provide further details.
CNN cited unidentified U.S. officials as saying that Phillips made a failed attempt to escape overnight.
The captain has made contact with the Navy, has been provided with batteries for his radio and provisions and appears to be unharmed, Maersk Lines said in a statement.
Maersk Lines is the Norfolk, Virginia-based U.S. unit of A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S, whose headquarters is in Copenhagen.
“The situation will end soon,” Da’ud said. “Either the Americans take their man and sink the boat with my colleagues, or we will soon recover the captain and my colleagues in the coming hours.
“But if they, Americans, attempt to use any military operation I am sure that nobody will survive,” he said.
FBI negotiators were called in by the U.S. Navy to assist and are “fully engaged in this matter,” Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesman Bill Carter said yesterday.
Safe Return ‘Priority’
“The safe return of the captain is our foremost priority and everything we have done has been to increase the chance of a peaceful outcome,” Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Maersk Lines Ltd., said in a televised statement from Norfolk.
A drone made by Boeing Co. has been monitoring the lifeboat since the USS Bainbridge entered the vessel’s vicinity, the U.S. official said.
“There is no way the Bainbridge is going to allow that lifeboat to go anywhere,” said Rear Admiral Richard Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in the Cape Cod town of Bourne. “The pirates are going to quickly realize they have two options: Surrender Phillips, maybe you get in jail for two years, or harm Phillips and face instant death.”
Sailors on the Alabama, which was carrying food aid and had a crew of 20 U.S. citizens, regained control of the ship April 8, the day it was attacked about 500 miles south of the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean.
The Alabama is now sailing for Mombasa, Kenya, its original destination, with armed guards aboard. The crew will be replaced and be able to return home, the father of crew member Shane Murphy told CNN.
The seizure sparked the second foreign-affairs challenge for President Barack Obama in less than a week. On April 5 North Korea launched a ballistic missile in defiance of international demands that it cease such actions.
“These people are nothing more than criminals,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington. “Piracy may be a centuries-old crime, but we are working to bring an appropriate 21st-century response.” Clinton also said the lifeboat was “out of gas.”
Pirates in the region have taken more ships this past week than in the first three months of the year. They’re operating outside their usual hunting grounds in the Gulf of Aden to avoid naval patrols. The Alabama is the first U.S.-flagged vessel to be hijacked since a Maritime Protection Corridor was set up in the region in August, according to the U.S. Navy.
Atalanta, the EU’s anti-piracy operation, is stepping up air patrols in the Indian Ocean, using French and Spanish planes based in Djibouti, it said in a statement. It also said that earlier this week it turned over seven suspected pirates, caught attacking a German tanker, to Kenya for prosecution.
About 25 warships from the EU, the U.S., Turkey, Russia, India and China have concentrated their efforts to protect the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s most-traveled trade routes and where most attacks have previously occurred.
Those naval forces “have the Gulf of Aden pretty well covered, so that’s why the pirates have moved out into the Indian Ocean where there are fewer patrols,” said Roger Middleton, a researcher at Chatham House, a London-based foreign policy institute.
The area Somali pirates have operated in is equal to the Mediterranean and Red Seas combined, or to four times France or Texas.
The pirates began following the Alabama on April 6 and boarded on April 8, sinking their own ship, AP reported. Da’ud said the pirates who captured the Alabama were from a group of seven who had earlier hijacked a German ship.
After the four pirates took over the Alabama, they were holding the captain at gunpoint when one of the U.S. crew overpowered a pirate and snatched his machinegun, Da’ud said. The other pirates then took the captain and fled in a lifeboat. They later contacted the Alabama to discuss an exchange, which the two sides agreed on, he said.
During the handover, “my colleague, the hostage, jumped into the sea while the three others suddenly refused to free the captain and the four pirates with the captain together fled the scene with the lifeboat” he said.
The pirate’s account matches that of a crew member, Ken Quinn, who told CNN in a broadcast phone interview that the crew released the captured pirate after 12 hours in an attempted hostage exchange.