NAIROBI/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The crew of a U.S.-flagged, Danish-owned freighter hijacked by pirates off Somalia retook control of the ship on Wednesday but their captain was still being held hostage on a lifeboat, the shipping line and a crew member said.
The crew of 20 Americans were in control of the ship and were trying to negotiate their captain’s release while they waited for a U.S. warship to arrive, second mate Ken Quinn told CNN.
“We are just trying to offer them whatever we can, food, but it is not working too good,” Quinn told CNN. He said the four pirates were holding the captain hostage on the ship’s lifeboat.
“We have a coalition warship that will be here in three hours. We are just trying to hold them off for three more hours and then we will have a warship here to help us,” he said.
The ship’s operator, Maersk Line Ltd, confirmed that the U.S. crew had regained control of the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama after the pirates left the ship with one hostage.
A spokesman for the company said no injuries had been reported for the rest of the crew left aboard.
Maritime officials said the Maersk Alabama was carrying food aid for Somalia and Uganda to from Djibouti to Mombasa, a Kenyan port, when it was seized far out in the Indian Ocean.
The seizure was the latest in an escalation in pirate attacks off the lawless Horn of Africa country of Somalia.
“We can confirm that our crew has control of the ship. The pirates have departed the ship and they have taken one crew member with them as a hostage,” the Maersk Line spokesman said, but could not confirm whether the hostage was the captain.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Army Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Hibner, said the U.S. Navy destroyer Bainbridge was en route.
Details on how far away it was were not immediately available.
The ship seizure, about 300 miles off Somalia, was the first time Somali pirates have seized U.S. citizens, if only briefly.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was very worried by the hijacking and called for world action to end the “scourge” of piracy.
“We are deeply concerned and we are following it very closely,” Clinton told reporters in Washington.
“Specifically, we are now focused on this particular act of piracy and the seizure of the ship that carries 21 American citizens. More generally, we think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy.”
The Maersk Line spokesman said that the company was working with the U.S. military and other government agencies to address the situation.
Second mate Quinn said the four pirates sank their own boat when they boarded the container ship. However, the captain talked them into getting off the freighter and into the ship’s lifeboat with him.
The crew then overpowered one of the pirates and sought to exchange him for the captain, Quinn told CNN.
“We kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up,” Quinn said. The crew released their captive to the other pirates, but the exchange did not work and the captain was still being held by the pirates on the lifeboat, he told CNN.
“They are not aboard. We are controlling” the ship, he said.
Maersk Line president and chief executive John Reinhart told reporters he had received a cell phone call from the crew at about 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) saying they were all safe.
He said company protocol advised the U.S. sailors not to attempt to retake the ship once hijackers were on board.
“Once boarded, the crew has safe rooms and they are not to take on active engagement because they have no weapons. It would be a risk to their lives,” Reinhart said.
Maersk Line is a Norfolk, Virginia-based subsidiary of Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipper.
Among the ship’s cargo were 400 containers of food aid, including 232 containers belonging to the U.N.’s World Food Program that were destined for Somalia and Uganda.
The seizure was the latest in a wave of pirate attacks. Gunmen from Somalia seized a British-owned ship on Monday after hijacking another three vessels over the weekend.
In the first three months of 2009 just eight ships were hijacked in the strategic Gulf of Aden, which links Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea to Europe via the Suez Canal.
Last year, heavily-armed Somali pirates hijacked dozens of vessels, took hundreds of sailors hostage — often for weeks — and extracted millions of dollars in ransoms.
Foreign navies sent warships to the area in response and reduced the number of successful attacks.
The Seafarers International Union, which has 12 members aboard, said the Maersk Alabama was enrolled in the U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP), a fleet of militarily useful, privately owned vessels.
Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle, Jim Wolf and Sue Pleming in Washington and Rasmus Jorgensen in Copenhagen; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Anthony Boadle; Editing by Charles Dick and Frances Kerry