Somali pirates defied international naval powers on Thursday to keep an American ship captain hostage on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean after their first seizure of US citizens.
The increasingly bold gunmen briefly hijacked the 17 000-tonne Maersk Alabama freighter on Wednesday, but the 20 American crew retook control after a confrontation far out at sea, where pirates have captured five other vessels in a week, Reuters notes.
Four gang members were holding the captain, Richard Phillips, on the ship’s lifeboat after he apparently volunteered to be a hostage for the sake of his crew.
“What I understand is he offered himself as the hostage to keep the rest of the crew safe,” his sister-in-law Gina Coggio told the ABC network. “That is what he would do, that’s just who he is, and his responsibility as the captain.”
The Pentagon said it was seeking a peaceful solution but was not ruling out any option in freeing Phillips.
His capture and the attack on his ship has once again focused world attention on Somali piracy, as happened last year when gunmen seized a Saudi supertanker with $100 million of oil on board, and a Ukrainian ship with 33 tanks.
Yet the attacks have been happening for years, reaching unprecedented levels in 2008, and pirates are holding more than 200 other hostages on captured ships.
Reached by Reuters via satellite phone, the pirates on the lifeboat sounded desperate as they watched a US warship and other foreign naval vessels close to them. “We are surrounded by warships and don’t have time to talk,” one said. “Please pray for us.”
The Danish-owned freighter’s operator Maersk Line Ltd said Phillips was unharmed and securing his safe return was the firm’s priority. The [Aegis destroyer] USS Bainbridge arrived on the scene before dawn, it added.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said it had been called in to assist, and its negotiators were “fully engaged”.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the lifeboat now appeared to be out of fuel. An East African maritime group said the Maersk Alabama was on its way to Kenya’s Mombasa port and would reach there in a couple of days.
The attack was the latest in a sharp escalation in piracy in the waters off lawless Somalia, where heavily armed sea gangs hijacked dozens of vessels last year and extracted millions of dollars in ransoms.
The Saudi and Ukrainian boats fetched about $3 million each.
The long-running phenomenon has disrupted shipping in the strategic Gulf of Aden and busy Indian Ocean waterways, increased insurance costs and made some firms send their cargoes round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal.
The upsurge in attacks makes a mockery of an unprecedented international naval effort against the pirates, including ships from Europe, the United States, China, Japan and others, who are patrolling off Somalia, mainly in the Gulf of Aden.
Pirates say they are undeterred by the foreign flotilla and will simply move operations away from the patrols, further out into the Indian Ocean.
“The solution to the problem, as ever, is the political situation in Somalia,” said analyst Jim Wilson, of Lloyds Register-Fairplay. Somalia has been mired in civil conflict, with no effective central control, for 18 years. “Until there is peace on land there will be piracy at sea.”
Maersk said its crew regained control of the Alabama on Wednesday when the pirates left the ship with the captain.
The ship was carrying thousands of tonnes of food aid destined for Somalia and Uganda from Djibouti to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was attacked about 300 miles (500 km) off Somalia.
“We are just trying to offer them whatever we can, food, but it is not working too good,” second mate Ken Quinn told CNN of efforts to secure their captain’s release. He said the four pirates sank their own boat after they boarded the Alabama.
Then the captain talked the gunmen into the ship’s lifeboat with him. The crew overpowered one of the pirates and sought to swap him for the captain, Quinn told CNN.
“We kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up,” Quinn said. They freed their captive, he added, but the exchange did not work.
In Haradheere port, a pirate stronghold, an associate of the gang said the gunmen were armed and ready to defend themselves.
“Our friends are still holding the captain but they cannot move, they are afraid of the warships,” he told Reuters. “We want a ransom and of course the captain is our shield. The warships might not destroy the boat as long as he is on board.”
Pirates there said two boats full of gunmen had left the port to go and support their surrounded colleagues.
“We are afraid warships will destroy them before they reach the scene,” one told Reuters.
UN says piracy making poverty, hunger worse
Meanwhile, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) says the escalating attacks are making it ever harder for it to deliver relief aid to the hungry in east Africa and the Horn of Africa.
Attacks like that on the Maersk Alabama are raising insurance costs and making shippers wary of going there, said Peter Smerdon, WFP’s senior public affairs officer for the region.
There are 232 WFP containers among 400 holding relief food on the US-flagged ship.
The aid was destined for Somalia, Kenya and Uganda.
“If we have piracy off Somalia making it difficult to deliver food, we will have to cut rations and people will miss distributions and people will go hungry,” Smerdon told Reuters.
“You get increased insurance rates because (the ships) are being hijacked and it also makes shippers more reluctant to come to this region.”
Piracy has been rampant in waters around the Horn of Africa. There were 111 attacks last year off Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, more than double the 2007 figure. The cases accounted for roughly one-third of all piracy in the world.
Often armed with heavy weapons, such as rocket launchers and automatic rifles, the pirates attack large cargo ships and tankers to demand ransoms for the release of their crew.
The Kenyan port city of Mombasa, south of the Somalia coast, is a vital hub for receiving food assistance for Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia and Kenya.
“The food situation in east and Horn of Africa is extremely serious. In Somalia we need to feed 3.4 million people — which is like half the population — because the numbers have gone up because of insecurity and drought,” he said.
Smerdon said it now costs hundred of millions of dollars more to feed the same number of people a year earlier because of the problems associated with shipping food and high food prices.