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Somali pirates keep US hostage on lifeboat

By | April 10th 2009


Somali pirates defied international naval powers Thursday to keep an American ship captain hostage on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean after their first seizure of US citizens.

The increasingly bold gunmen briefly hijacked the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama freighter but the 20 American crew retook control after a confrontation far out at sea, where pirates have captured five other vessels in a week.

Four gang members were holding the captain, Richard Phillips, on the ship’s lifeboat after he apparently volunteered to be a hostage for the sake of his crew.

"What I understand is he offered himself as the hostage to keep the rest of the crew safe," his sister-in-law Gina Coggio told the ABC network. "That is what he would do, that’s just who he is, and his responsibility as captain."

The Pentagon said it was seeking a peaceful solution to the hijacking, but is not ruling out any option in freeing the ship’s captain, spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

The US Navy warship Bainbridge arrived on the scene before dawn today. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had been called in to assist, and its negotiators were "fully engaged".

The US Navy destroyer arrived off Somalia to apply pressure for the release of Captain Phillips.

Meanwhile, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the lifeboat appeared to be out of fuel, President Barack Obama declined to answer reporters’ questions on the hostage crisis off the

Coast of Somalia.

Obama was asked to comment on the situation several times by reporters at a White House event on refinancing for homeowners.

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.

Naval effort

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 cargoes 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 US, China, Japan and others.

"We are surrounded by warships and don’t have time to talk," one of four pirates on the lifeboat told Reuters by phone. "Please pray for us."

Pirates say they are undeterred by the flotilla and will simply move operations away from the patrols.

The ship was carrying thousands of tonnes of food aid destined for Somalia and Uganda from Djibouti to Mombasa, when it was attacked about 500 km off Somalia.

— Reuters

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