U.S. Captain Is Hostage of Pirates; Navy Ship Arrives

A U.S. Navy destroyer kept close watch Thursday on a lifeboat holding four Somali pirates and their hostage — an American ship captain — one day after the pirates briefly seized a United States-flagged cargo ship off the coast of Africa.

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The pirates boarded and seized the unarmed container ship, Maersk Alabama, taking 20 American sailors hostage on Wednesday. Although the crew managed to retake the ship within hours, the pirates were still holding the ship’s captain as they fled the ship in an unpowered lifeboat.

The captain was identified as Richard Phillips, of Underhill, Vermont.

A distress call from the ship brought the destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, to the scene, and other warships were en route Thursday as well.

“The Navy has command of the situation,” a spokesman for Maersk Line Ltd., Kevin Speers, said Thursday morning.

The Alabama was the first American vessel to be hijacked in the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa. More than 150 ships were attacked off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and there have been six attacks in the region in the past week. Sixteen ships are currently being held for ransom by seagoing pirate gangs.

In this case, however, the crew of the Alabama managed to disable the ship at about the time the pirates came on board, according to a senior American military official. The four hijackers, apparently overrun by the ship’s crew, then loaded Mr. Phillips into a lifeboat, shoved off from the Alabama and began negotiating for his release.

The 508-foot-long Alabama was bound for the Kenyan port of Mombasa and was carrying food and other agricultural materials for the World Food Program, a United Nations agency, and other clients, including the United States Agency for International Development.

American officials praised the crew’s decision to disable the ship. The Alabama’s second in command, Capt. Shane Murphy, is the son of an instructor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy who teaches a course on how to repel pirate attacks.

At the White House, military and national security officials tracked the developments from the Situation Room, and they provided several briefings to President Obama and other administration officials.

Mr. Obama first learned of the hijacking early on Wednesday morning after he returned to the White House from his overseas trip, and he later convened an interagency group on maritime safety, aides said. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said, “Our top priority is the personal safety of the crew members on board.”

The Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping lanes, is patrolled by an anti-piracy flotilla from the European Union and a U.S.-led coalition of ships, plus warships from Iran, Russia, India, China, Japan and other nations. But pirates using mother ships — oceangoing trawlers that carry speedier attack vessels — have extended their reach into the waters far off the East African coast. On Saturday, for example, a German freighter was hijacked about 400 miles offshore, between Kenya and the Seychelles.

At the time of the attack on the Alabama, the closest patrol vessel was about 300 nautical miles away, a Navy spokesman said.

“It’s that old saying: where the cops aren’t, the criminals are going to go,” said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Fifth Fleet spokesman. “We patrol an area of more than one million square miles. The simple fact of the matter is that we can’t be everywhere at one time.”

Maersk’s senior director for security, Finn Brodersen, said in an interview with the International Herald Tribune last month that three of the company’s ships had been attacked off Somalia — all unsuccessfully.

Mr. Brodersen said Maersk, like most major shippers, did not favor the use of armed guards on its ships, largely for safety and liability reasons. Fuel or fumes could be ignited by gunfire, for example, and crew members would be put at further risk if a gun battle took place.

Some crews have sprayed fire-retardant foam at approaching pirates, and the Alabama crew reportedly used water hoses to battle the pirates on Wednesday. Some shipowners spray super-slippery goo on their decks to trip up pirates; others have even strung electrified wires around the hulls of their vessels.

Maersk also has tested LRADs, long-range acoustic devices. These sonic cannons, which look like TV satellite dishes, shoot disabling sound waves at approaching pirate ships. But these were found to be ineffective, Mr. Brodersen said, and they “expose the crew to being shot at.”

As part of their insurance coverage, most of the major merchant lines with ships transiting the Gulf of Aden have contracts with professional crisis teams that are called when hijack situations occur. These teams include former special forces commandos and trained hostage negotiators who deal with the hijackers and their ransom demands, deliveries of food and supplies to ships during lengthy negotiations, the relaying of ransom payments (usually in U.S. 100-dollar bills), and the safe release of hostages.

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