MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - A U.S.-flagged ship that was seized by Somali pirates arrived safely in the Kenyan port of Mombasa on Saturday, as a Somali mediator headed to sea to try to secure the release of the ship’s American captain.
“The captain is a hero,” one crew member shouted from the 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama container ship as it docked. “He saved our lives by giving himself up.
The ship, under the command of Richard Phillips, was attacked by gunmen far out in the Indian Ocean on Wednesday but its 20 American crew apparently fought off the hijackers and regained control of the freighter.
Phillips was taken hostage and is being held captive on a drifting lifeboat by the gang of four pirates who want $2 million ransom for him, as well as safe passage.
Relatives said Phillips had volunteered to join the pirates in their lifeboat in exchange for the safety of his crew. At one point, he tried to escape by jumping overboard but “didn’t get very far,” a U.S. official said.
Three U.S. warships were in the area around the lifeboat. A U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said crew members on the destroyer USS Bainbridge saw Phillips on Friday from a distance of several hundred yards (meters), moving and talking aboard the boat after his failed escape.
CNN said on Saturday the Bainbridge sent a small boat to approach the lifeboat to open communication, but the pirates responded with gunfire. The Navy personnel then retreated.
NBC television and CBS radio said the lifeboat had drifted to within 20 miles of the Somali coast, and that U.S. military officials feared that if the craft reached the shore, the pirates might escape with their hostage on land.
Somalia has suffered 18 years of civil war and the international waters off the Horn of Africa have become some of the most dangerous in the world.
Phillips is just one of about 270 hostages from a variety of countries being held by Somali pirates preying on the busy sea-lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Yet the Maersk Alabama has captured world attention because Phillips is the first U.S. citizen seized and his crew was able to regain control of the ship.
“Once again, it has taken American involvement to get world powers really interested,” said a diplomat who tracks Somalia from Nairobi.
The standoff has forced U.S. President Barack Obama to focus on a place most Americans would rather forget. A U.S. intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s was a disaster, including the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993 that killed 18 U.S. troops and inspired a book and a movie.
A White House spokesman said Obama received multiple updates on the piracy situation on Saturday.
John Reinhart, president and chief executive of Maersk Line Ltd, said the FBI was investigating the hijacking in Kenya.
“Because of the pirate attack, the FBI has informed us that this ship is a crime scene,” he told reporters, adding that the crew will have to stay on board the vessel.
As it docked, a U.S. crewman shouted to reporters a message that he wanted relayed to his family — “I’m happy, I’m safe.”
It was still not clear how the crew retook control of their vessel, which was carrying thousands of tons of food aid for Somalia, Uganda and Kenya.
Somali elders sent a mediator on Saturday in hopes of resolving a standoff between the U.S. Navy and the four pirates holding Phillips, a 53-year-old Vermont father of two.
“They are just looking to arrange safe passage for the pirates, no ransom,” said Andrew Mwangura, the coordinator of a regional group that monitors piracy.
The mediator took to sea in a boat but it was unclear how he would reach the pirates. He speaks English and aimed to bridge the language gap between the pirates and the U.S. side.
“The man took a boat but how he will spot the lifeboat is the question,” said Aweys Ali Said, head of the local Galkayo region’s local authority. “The elders want the captain to be released and the pirates to come home safely. But I understand, the pirates need a ransom, come what may.
The gang holding Phillips remained defiant. “We will defend ourselves if attacked,” one told Reuters by satellite phone.
Another band of pirates seized an Italian-flagged tugboat with 10 Italians and six others aboard on Saturday, NATO officials on a warship in the region said.
Earlier, attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade and guns at another ship in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen. The grenade did not explode and the ship’s crew managed to repel the attackers with water hoses, the officials said.
French special forces on Friday stormed a yacht held by pirates elsewhere in the lawless stretch of the Indian Ocean in an assault that killed one hostage but freed four. Two of the pirates were killed and three captured.
Filipinos make up the largest contingent of hostages in the region. Pirates are keeping about 17 captured vessels on Somalia’s eastern coast — six taken in the last week alone.
In Somalia’s semi-autonomous northern Puntland region, which prides itself on its relative stability, a court sentenced 10 pirates to 20 years in prison on Saturday for attacking a Syrian-registered ship in October 2008. But piracy seems sure to go on while Somalia stays in chaos.
Insurance premiums have risen and some shippers just avoid the area, sending cargoes round South Africa to Europe instead of through the Gulf of Aden into the Suez Canal.
Piracy has been growing for years but hit headlines in 2008 when there were 42 hijackings including the world’s largest sea hijack of a Saudi tanker carrying $100 million of oil.
Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh and Mohamed Ahmed in Mogadishu, Abdiqani Hassan in Bosasso, Abdiaziz Hassan in Nairobi, Daniel Wallis and Celestine Achieng in Mombasa, Alison Bevege on board the NRB Corte-Real, Todd Eastham, Andrew Gray, Anthony Boadle, David Morgan and Bill Trott in Washington, William Maclean in London and Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi; writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Bill Trott; editing by Kieran Murray and Philip Barbara