MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Pirates on Friday sailed a hijacked German freighter and its crew toward a lifeboat off Somalia where an American hostage was being held in an attempt to help their comrades in a standoff with the U.S. Navy.
In a day of drama on the high seas off East Africa, French special forces stormed and freed a yacht held by pirates in a military assault in which one hostage was killed and four others were freed.
A pirate source said the four pirates holding the American captain of a cargo ship, Richard Phillips, in a drifting lifeboat under the gaze of a U.S. warship were demanding $2 million for his release and a guarantee of their own safety.
They have been holding Phillips since a foiled attempt on Wednesday to hijack the 17,000-tonne, Danish-owned Maersk Alabama several hundred miles off Somalia.
Close by, the destroyer USS Bainbridge was in radio contact with the pirates seeking a peaceful outcome to the standoff with the assistance of FBI experts, a U.S. official said.
But the pirate source told Reuters from the fishing port of Haradheere, a pirate den in Somalia, that another group that hijacked the 20,000-tonne German container vessel, the Hansa Stavanger, a week ago were heading to the scene of the standoff in the Indian Ocean.
The ship, seized off south Somalia between Kenya and the Seychelles, has a crew of 24, of whom five are German.
“Knowing that the Americans will not destroy this German ship and its foreign crew, they hope they can meet their friends on the lifeboat,” said the pirate, who has given reliable information in the past but asked not to be named.
The Norwegian-owned, 23-000-tonne tanker Bow Asir, held since the end of March, was released after a ransom was paid by its owners, pirate sources said.
A spokesman for operator Salhus Shipping AS confirmed the vessel, which has a crew of 27, had been released, but gave no details. Sources put the payment at around $2.4 million.
Located on the Horn of Africa across from the Middle East, Somalia has suffered 18 years of civil conflict since warlords overthrew former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Last year there were an unprecedented number of hijackings off Somalia -- 42 in total. That disrupted shipping, delayed food aid to east Africa, increased insurance costs and persuaded some firms to send cargoes round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, a critical route for oil.
It also brought a massive international response, with ships from the United States, Europe, China, Japan and others flocking to the region to protect the sea-routes.
Phillips apparently volunteered to get in a lifeboat with the pirates on Wednesday in exchange for the safety of his crew, who regained control of the ship laden with relief food destined for Kenya.
Phillips leaped into the sea during the night and tried to swim away but at least one pirate quickly followed and he was hauled back onto the lifeboat, a U.S. official said.
“He didn’t get very far,” the official told Reuters.
The pirate gang holding him remained defiant despite the arrival of U.S. and other naval ships in the area.
“We are not afraid of the Americans,” one of the pirates told Reuters by satellite phone. “We will defend ourselves if attacked.”
In Washington, the Pentagon had no comment on the pirates’ plan to move the German vessel or any ransom demand.
U.S. officials confirmed that reinforcements were nearby. A second American warship, guided missile frigate USS Halyburton equipped with helicopters, and a German frigate, had arrived in the vicinity of the standoff, they said.
The USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, was also heading for the lifeboat’s general area, mainly in case its medical facilities were required, one U.S. official said.
The U.S. Navy is using a drone for surveillance of the lifeboat, he said.
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said the decision to launch an assault to rescue hostages from the sailing boat, the Tanit, had been taken after the gang refused to accept the French navy’s terms and tried to sail toward the coast.
The boat, carrying two couples and a three-year-old child, was seized by the pirates far off-shore on April 4.
“During the operation, a hostage sadly died,” a statement said. It gave no details of the circumstances. Two pirates were also killed and three were captured.
Maritime groups say the likeliest outcome from the U.S. hostage saga is a negotiated solution, possibly involving safe passage in exchange for the captive.
U.S. Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus said the best outcome would be for the German ship to be allowed to pick up Phillips and his captors and take them to shore, and for a ransom to be paid for the American.
“It would mean no loss of life and no risk to the lives of the other hostages. And at the end of the day an insurance company would be out $2 million -- probably just $1 million after negotiations,” Menkhaus said.
Phillips is one of about 270 hostages being held by Somali pirates, who have been preying on the busy sea-lanes of the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean for years.
They are keeping 18 captured vessels -- five of them taken this week alone -- at or near lairs on the Somali coast.
Yet the fact Phillips is the first American citizen seized, and the drama of his 20-man crew stopping the Alabama being hijacked on Wednesday, has galvanized U.S. attention.
It has also given President Barack Obama another foreign policy problem in a place most Americans would rather forget.
They remember with a shudder the disastrous U.S.-U.N. intervention in Mogadishu, including the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993 when 18 U.S. troops were killed in a 17-hour firefight that later inspired a book and a movie.
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington, William Maclean in London, Mogadishu office, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi; Writing by Anthony Boadle; editing by Chris Wilson