A US Navy destroyer has reached waters off Somalia to help free an American ship captain taken hostage by pirates in the first seizure of US citizens by the increasingly bold sea gangs.
Reuters says gunmen briefly hijacked the 17 000-tonne Maersk Alabama freighter on Wednesday, but the 20 American crew retook control after a confrontation far out in the Indian Ocean where the pirates have captured another five vessels in a week.
Second mate Ken Quinn told CNN the pirates were holding the captain on the ship’s lifeboat, and that the crew were trying to negotiate his release.
The Danish-owned freighter’s operator, Maersk Line Ltd, said the US Navy warship Bainbridge arrived on the scene before dawn on Thursday.
CNN said the lifeboat, with the captain and four pirates aboard, was within sight of the Alabama. But a regional maritime official said that might have changed.
“We are now getting reports the Alabama is moving toward safe waters,” Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, told Reuters.
“But we don’t know what happened to the master, whether the pirates took him away or returned him safely aboard the ship.”
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, took hundreds of sailors hostage and extracted millions of dollars in ransoms.
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 cargos round South Africa instead of 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.
“The solution to the problem, as ever, is the political situation in Somalia,” said analyst Jim Wilson, of Lloyds Register-Fairplay, referring to the 18-year civil conflict.
“Until there is peace on land there will be piracy at sea.”
On the Alabama
Maersk said its crew regained control of the Alabama yesterday after the pirates left the huge ship with one hostage. It could not confirm whether that captive was the captain.
Maersk spokesman B.J. Talley said no injuries had been reported among the crew members left on board the freighter.
CNN said the Alabama crew could see the Bainbridge and had been in contact with the Navy. A US defense official in Washington would say only there were US assets in the area.
The US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain referred all media enquiries on Thursday to the Pentagon.
The ship was carrying thousands of tons of food aid destined for Somalia and Uganda from Djibouti to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was attacked about 300 miles off Somalia.
“We are just trying to offer them whatever we can, food, but it is not working too good,” 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.
But then the captain talked the gunmen into the ship’s lifeboat with him. The crew overpowered one of the pirates and sought to exchange 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.
Somali gunmen captured a British-owned ship on Monday after hijacking another three vessels over the weekend.
“We think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington, saying she was following the saga closely.
US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said a thorough policy debate on Somali piracy was long overdue.
“I plan to hold hearings to further examine the growing threat of piracy and all the policy options that need to be on the table before the next fire drill becomes an international incident with big implications,” Kerry said in a statement.