NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – U.S. warships are trying to stop Somali pirates from sending reinforcements to a lifeboat where an American captain is being held hostage as the high-seas standoff off Africa’s eastern coast entered a fourth day Saturday.
Underscoring the high stakes involved, France’s navy on Friday freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed.
A Nairobi-based diplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters, said the pirates have summoned assistance but at least two American ships and U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft are deterring pirate ships and skiffs from contact with the lifeboat.
The pirates have threatened to kill their American hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips, if the U.S. attacks them, according to a Somali who has been in contact with the pirates.
The Somali said the pirates had called in four commandeered ships with hostages from a variety of nations including the Philippines, Russia and Germany.
The vice president of the Philippines, the nation with the largest number of sailors held captive by Somali pirates, appealed Saturday 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.”
U.S. rules of engagement prevent the Americans using their vastly superior fighting power to engage the pirates if there is any danger to civilians.
The situation is new for the pirates. Normally, they seize a ship with many hostages and get it anchored near shore, where they can quickly escape to land, and then begin negotiations for multimillion-dollar ransoms. Left with only Phillips and a lifeboat that is out of fuel, they are in a vulnerable position.
On Friday, Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat and tried to swim for his freedom 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.
Phillips, of Underhill, Vermont, was seized Wednesday after he thwarted the pirates’ bid to hijack the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama freighter, which was carrying food aid for hungry people in Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda. The Alabama headed toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa, its original destination, with 20 American crew members aboard. It was expected to arrive Saturday night, said Joseph Murphy, whose son is second-in-command of the vessel.
Piracy along the anarchic and impoverished Somali coast, the longest in Africa, has risen in recent years. Somali pirates hold about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group based in Malaysia. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Alabama.
The pirates’ strategy is to link up with colleagues on other seized ships, who are holding Russian, German, Filipino and other hostages, and get Phillips to lawless Somalia, where they could hide the hostage and make it difficult to stage a rescue, the Somali speaking to the pirates said. That would give the pirates more leverage and a stronger negotiating position to discuss a ransom. Anchoring near shore also means they could get to land quickly if attacked.
The Somali, who helped negotiate a ransom last year to pirates who seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He said he has talked with a pirate leader in Somalia who helped coordinate the failed effort to seize the Alabama. Sailors on the USS Bainbridge, which has rescue helicopters and lifeboats, were able to see Phillips but at several hundred yards away were too far to help him. The U.S. destroyer is keeping its distance, in part to stay out of the pirates’ range of fire. Its sailors saw Phillips moving around and talking after his return to the lifeboat, and the Defense Department officials think he is unharmed. The Bainbridge was joined Friday by the USS Hallyburton, which has helicopters, and the huge, amphibious USS Boxer is expected on the scene soon, the defense officials said. The Boxer is the flag ship of a multination anti-piracy task force that 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.
Negotiations had been taking place between the pirates and the captain of the Bainbridge, who was getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators, the officials said.
Phillips, 53, thwarted the takeover of the 17,000-ton Alabama by telling his crew of about 20 to lock themselves in a cabin, the crew told stateside relatives. The crew later overpowered some of the pirates but Phillips surrendered himself to safeguard his men, and the Somalis fled with him to an enclosed lifeboat, the relatives said.
Meanwhile, France’s defense minister promised an autopsy and investigation into the death of a hostage killed Friday during a French navy commando operation that freed four other captives held by Somali pirates. Pirates had seized a sailboat carrying Florent Lemacon, his wife, 3-year-old son and two friends off the Somali coast a week ago. On Friday, French navy commandos stormed the boat in an assault triggered by threats the passengers would be executed.
Two pirates were killed, and Lemacon died in an exchange of fire as he tried to duck down the hatch. Three pirates were taken prisoner in the operation, and are to be brought to France for criminal proceedings.