US ship hijacked by pirates, retaken by crew, reaches Kenyan port without abducted captain

CrimeCrime, Law and JusticePiracyDefenseArmed ForcesUnrest, Conflicts and WarDeath

MOMBASA, Kenya (AP) — Cheering and guarded by Navy Seals, the crew of an American ship reached a Kenyan port Saturday evening without their captain, still held hostage by Somali pirates in a lifeboat hundreds of miles from shore.

Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, was seized Wednesday when he thwarted the takeover of the 17,000-ton U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, which was carrying food aid for hungry people in Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda. He told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members told stateside relatives.

"He saved our lives!" second mate Ken Quinn, of Bradenton, Florida, declared from the ship as it docked in the resort and port city of Mombasa. "He's a hero."

The crew later overpowered some of the pirates but the Somalis fled with the captain to an enclosed lifeboat, the relatives said.

Quinn told reporters the experience was "terrifying and exciting at the same time."

Not everybody on the ship was ecstatic, however. One man looked out at the assembled journalists who were shouting questions at him, and after a pause said: "You're a bunch of ... leeches." Later, facing the crowd again from the ship, he added: "Don't disrespect these men like that. They've got a man out on a lifeboat dying so we can live."

Even as the Maersk Alabama pulled into port, the crew of an Italian-flagged tugboat was being held by pirates who seized it in a new attack.

The Italian tugboat was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia's north coast Saturday as it was pulling barges, said Shona Lowe, a spokeswoman at NATO's Northwood maritime command center outside London.

The Foreign Ministry in Rome confirmed 10 of the 16 crew members are Italian. The others are five Romanians and a Croatian, according to Micoperi, the Italian company that owns the ship.

"We received an e-mail from the ship saying 'We are being attacked by pirates,' and after that, nothing," Silvio Bartolotti, the owner of the company, told The Associated Press.

The two hijackings did not take place near each other and a piracy expert said they did not appear related.

"This is just the Somali pirate machine in full flow," said Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, founder of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Ltd.. "That's what pirates do, it's business for them."

Piracy along the anarchic and impoverished Somali coast, the longest in Africa, has risen in recent years. Somali pirates have been seizing ships with many hostages and anchoring it near shore, where they have quickly escaped to land and begun negotiations for multimillion-dollar ransoms.

Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat and tried to swim for his freedom on Friday but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the sensitive, unfolding operations.

Because Phillips thwarted them, his captors are in an unusually vulnerable situation, drifting in a lifeboat more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) from shore with only one hostage and in sight of two U.S. warships.

A Nairobi-based diplomat, who receives regular briefings on the situation, said the four pirates holding Phillips had tried to summon other pirates from the Somali mainland. The diplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said that pirates had been trying to reach the lifeboat.

He said that at least two American ships and U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft had been attempting to deter pirate ships and skiffs from contact with the lifeboat but he did not know if the pirates and Navy ships had come into contact.

A Somali who described himself as having close ties to pirate networks told The Associated Press that pirates had set out in four commandeered ships with hostages from a variety of nations including the Philippines, Russia and Germany.

A second Somali man who said he had spoken by satellite phone to a pirate piloting a seized German freighter told the AP by phone Saturday that the pirate captain had reported being blocked by U.S. forces and was returning Saturday to the pirate stronghold of Harardhere.

Abdirahman Osman, a resident of the town who says he knows the pirates well, said the pirates returned home later Saturday, looking tired. He said the pirates told him they had abandoned their plan to help fellow bandits on the lifeboat because it was surrounded by U.S. forces.

The man who spoke to the pirate captain, who sought anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the pirate captain told him the ship was in sight of a U.S. Navy destroyer Saturday morning, received a U.S. warning not to come any closer and, fearing attack, left the scene without ever seeing the lifeboat.

The second Somali man said the pirate also told him that two other commandeered ships from Taiwan and Greece that were trying to reach the lifeboat feared a showdown with the U.S. Navy and returned Friday night to Eyl, a port that serves as a pirate hub. It was not immediately possible to contact people in Eyl Saturday.

A Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations said in Washington Saturday morning that there had been no developments overnight. He declined to comment on the report that the U.S. Navy had turned back the pirates.

However, two U.S. officials said Saturday that FBI agents are investigating the Somali pirates who are holding Phillips hostage, raising the possibility of federal charges against the men if they are captured. The officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

"FBI officers will debrief members of the crew on board the vessel before they disembark," Maersk said.

The captain of the USS Bainbridge has also been getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators and talks have taken place between him and the pirates, U.S. officials said.

The Bainbridge was joined Friday by the USS Halyburton, which has helicopters, and the huge, amphibious USS Boxer was expected soon after, the defense officials said. The Boxer, the flagship of a multination anti-piracy task force, resembles a small aircraft carrier. It has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.

On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed.

The vice president of the Philippines, the nation with the largest number of sailors held captive by Somali pirates, appealed for the safety of hostages to be ensured in the standoff.

"We hope that before launching any tactical action against the pirates, the welfare of every hostage is guaranteed and ensured," said Vice President Noli de Castro. "Moreover, any military action is best done in consultation with the United Nations to gain the support and cooperation of other countries."

France's defense minister promised an autopsy and investigation into the death of the hostage killed during the commando operation, which freed four other captives and was prompted by threats the passengers would be executed. Two pirates also were killed. Three pirates were captured and are to be brought to France for criminal proceedings.

Somali pirates are holding about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Alabama.

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Associated Press writers who contributed to this report include Mohamed Olad Hassan and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia; Michelle Faul and Tom Maliti in Nairobi, Kenya; Ariel David in Rome; Constant Brand in Brussels; Matt Apuzzo and Robert Burns in Washington; Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines; and Pierre-Yves Roger in Paris.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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