U.S. ship captain held by Somali pirates

With a U.S. warship on site keeping watch early today, Somali pirates and American seamen engaged in a standoff on the high seas after the crew of a freighter loaded with food for Africa fought off the hijackers -- who fled in a lifeboat with the captain as a hostage.

The assault on the U.S.- registered Maersk Alabama cargo ship far off Somalia's coast marked the first attack against a U.S.-flagged vessel off Africa since the days of the Barbary pirates more than 200 years ago, a maritime official said.

The 20-member crew, unarmed, according to the ship's owner, managed to overpower at least four pirates and regain control, U.S. officials said. But the captain, 55-year-old Vermont resident Richard Phillips, was being held by the pirates, a U.S. Defense official said.

The attempted seizure of the Danish-owned vessel marks the latest chapter in the piracy saga off Somalia. Poverty, civil war and the lack of a functioning government since 1991 have turned the waters around the Horn of Africa nation into the most crime- infested on Earth.

The attack on the cargo ship was the second in two days, U.S. officials said. After rebuffing the first attempt, the ship's crew radioed Wednesday that two skiffs were closing in. Thirty minutes later, the ship told maritime officials that pirates had attached a grappling hook and were climbing aboard.

It remained unclear how the American crew retook the ship, and with Phillips in pirate hands, second-in-command Shane Murphy was in control. A crew member told CNN that one of the pirates had been detained, but then was released in an unsuccessful bid to exchange him for the captain.

U.S. Defense Department officials said the U.S. destroyer Bainbridge arrived on the scene early today and was monitoring the situation. Navy P-3 surveillance planes also were keeping watch.

Officials said the destroyer would establish communication, watch the situation and seek to negotiate the hostage's release, which could take some time.

"I wouldn't expect it to resolve itself like an episode of "CSI" in 45 minutes," a Defense official said.

Both Murphy and Phillips are graduates of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where Murphy's father teaches a course in anti-piracy tactics. Academy President Rick Gurnon said it was his understanding that the crew had disabled the cargo ship in a bid to thwart the hijackers.

Phillips' sister-in-law, Lea Coggio, described him as "easygoing, laid-back," and added that she wouldn't be surprised if he was having a relaxed conversation with the pirates.

Numerous merchant vessels have successfully fended off or outrun pirates, but the actions of the U.S. crew appeared to mark a rare instance of seafarers overpowering pirates after a ship was seized, maritime officials said.

It remained unclear who attacked the 17,000-ton vessel, but past attacks have been launched by Somali warlords, disgruntled fishermen and foreign-based criminal networks. After chasing ships in speed boats and scaling the ships' hulls, Somali pirates typically anchor vessels off the coast and negotiate ransoms of $1 million to $3 million.

Last year, pirates attacked 122 vessels in the region and seized 42 of them. Total ransom payments collected by Somali pirates were believed to have topped $50 million. Maritime officials say at least 16 ships and 200 crew members are being held.

Among high-profile attacks last year was one against a Ukrainian vessel carrying 33 military tanks and another targeting a Saudi-owned tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil.

Pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama about 7:30 a.m., U.S. Navy officials said. The ship was in the Indian Ocean about 240 nautical miles southeast of the Somalia port city of Eyl, they said.

The ship's owner, Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Line, is a U.S. subsidiary of Denmark's A.P. Moller-Maersk. The shipping giant is a longtime Pentagon contractor, according to security analyst firm Global Security.org, operating vessels with "top security clearance." But the hijacked vessel was not sailing under a Defense Department contract at the time of the attack, company and U.S. military officials said.

Maersk Line Chief Executive John Reinhart said at a news conference that the company's seafarers were trained in prevention methods to combat piracy, such as increasing the ship's speed or changing direction, preventing pirates from boarding, using extra lookouts and maintaining regular communication with the U.S. Navy.

"We have ways to push back, but we don't carry arms," he said.

A spokesman for the World Food Program confirmed that part of the ship's cargo was being ferried on its behalf, including 4,000 metric tons of corn headed for Somalia and Uganda, and 1,000 metric tons of vegetable oil for refugees in Kenya. It was expected to dock in the Kenyan port of Mombasa on April 16.

Maritime experts predicted that the crew's efforts could serve as a deterrent.

"This will send a message to pirates," said Candyce Kelshall, a specialist at maritime security firm Blue Water Defence and Security, based in Trinidad.

She said that as few as four armed pirates have been able to seize control of massive commercial vessels because seafarers, who are often low-paid and undertrained, have been told by ship owners to offer no resistance to avoid loss of life.

"We don't want to have a crew of Rambos," Kelshall said, noting that she disagrees with American military recommendations that commercial vessels carry arms for protection. "But if this crew was able to retake the ship without using arms by outnumbering the pirates or because of their training, this is something that should be encouraged."

Retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was skipper of the U.S. destroyer Cole when it was attacked by Al Qaeda operatives in 2000, praised the crew members' bravery.

"It exemplifies that Americans, whether merchant marines or sailors, possess initiative and leadership," Lippold said. "It shows an incredible amount of courage."

Lippold said, however, that the attack and the capture of the ship's captain raise the stakes for the U.S. government.

"The problem of piracy has come home to roost and now American lives are in jeopardy," he said. He advocated increasing the Navy fleet and attacking pirate strongholds in Somalia.

Navy officials said pirate attacks against U.S. ships in the area have not been a problem.

"Every indication is that this is the first time a U.S.-flagged ship has been successfully seized by pirates in this region," said Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program in Nairobi, said the last attack on an American vessel by African pirates was reported in 1804 off Libya. "It's been a very long time," he said.

More than 33,000 ships pass along the East African trade route each year. Pirates targeting them use navigational devices and electronic maritime databases to avoid capture, officials said.

U.S. warships, joined by vessels from several other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries and other navies, have been patrolling the region since late last year.

When the arms-laden Ukrainian ship was hijacked last year, U.S. warships and helicopters provided 24-hour surveillance to ensure that none of the weapons were offloaded to militants.

The anti-piracy efforts have had mixed success. Attacks near Somalia's shore have declined, but pirates have just moved farther out into the Indian Ocean.

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edmund.sanders @latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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