MOGADISHU/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy negotiated on Thursday with Somali pirates who held an American ship captain hostage in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean, their first such seizure of a U.S. citizen.
The gunmen briefly hijacked the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama freighter Wednesday, 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.
The Bainbridge, a U.S. warship, arrived on the scene before dawn and U.S. soldiers boarded the Maersk Alabama.
Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, top U.S. naval commander in the region, told CNN talks with the pirates had begun, while other military officials said more force was on the way to the area.
“We have USS Bainbridge on station currently negotiating with the pirates to get our American citizen back,” Gortney said from his base in Bahrain, adding that the assault on the Maersk Alabama could mark a new phase in the international struggle against piracy in the region.
“We’ve always thought that one of the potential game changers out there is a U.S. flag vessel with U.S. citizens on board and we’re there ... and that’s where we are right now.”
Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. government was working “around the clock” on the crisis, but top officials indicated they were ready to wait out the delicate negotiations.
The saga added to challenges faced by President Barack Obama less than three months after he took office. [nN09285492] Analysts said it could galvanize political support for a more active U.S. security presence on crucial trade routes off Africa’s coasts.
In a statement the Danish-owned freighter’s operator, Maersk Line Ltd, said its ship had left the area but that the lifeboat remained in sight of the warship.
“The captain has been in touch with the crew and with the USS Bainbridge. He has radio contact and has been provided with additional batteries and provisions. The most recent communication indicates that the captain is unharmed,” the company said.
The Pentagon said it was seeking a peaceful solution but was not ruling out any options to free the captain.
His capture and the attack on his ship has refocused attention on Somali piracy, as happened last year when heavily armed sea gangs hijacked dozens of vessels, including a Saudi supertanker with $100 million of oil and a Ukrainian ship with 33 tanks.
The Saudi and Ukrainian boats fetched about $3 million each.
The attacks have occurred for years but hit unprecedented levels in 2008. Pirates hold 18 vessels with a total of 267 hostages, many of them from the Philippines, according to the Kenya-based East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme.
Reached by Reuters via satellite phone, the pirates on the lifeboat sounded desperate. “We are surrounded by warships and don’t have time to talk,” one said. “Please pray for us.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said it had been called in to assist, and its negotiators were fully engaged in resolving what Attorney General Eric Holder called the first act of piracy against a U.S. vessel “in hundreds of years”.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the lifeboat appeared to be out of fuel and that “a number of assets” were being used to resolve the situation.
“Piracy may be a centuries-old crime, but we are working to bring an appropriate, 21st century response,” she said at a joint appearance with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Australian foreign and defense ministers.
The upsurge in piracy has disrupted shipping in the strategic Gulf of Aden and busy Indian Ocean waterways, delayed delivery of food aid for drought-hit East Africa, increased insurance costs and made some firms send cargoes round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, a critical route for the oil trade.
Ships from Europe, the United States, China, Japan and others have been patrolling waters off Somalia, mainly in the Gulf of Aden, to prevent further attacks.
Pirates say they are undeterred and will move operations further out into the Indian Ocean.[nL9657729]
“The solution to the problem, as ever, is the political situation in Somalia,” said analyst Jim Wilson, of Lloyds Register-Fairplay. “Until there is peace on land there will be piracy at sea.”
The hijacking may spur new U.S. interest in a maritime security initiative for insecure but commercially important sea lanes of East Africa and in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea off the west coast, Eurasia Group analyst Philippe de Pontet said.
“This particular attack raises the stakes for Washington and may galvanize support for a broader security posture off the coasts of Africa,” de Pontet said in a note.
The Maersk Alabama was sailing from Djibouti to Mombasa with a cargo of food aid for Somalia and Uganda when it was attacked about 300 miles off Somalia.
The ship’s second mate, Ken Quinn, told CNN the four pirates sank their own boat after they boarded the Alabama.
The captain talked the gunmen into the ship’s lifeboat, allowing the crew to overpower one of the pirates. The crew eventually freed their captive, Quinn said, but did not get the captain back in return.
In Somalia’s Haradheere port, an associate of the gang said they were armed and ready to defend themselves.
“Our friends are still holding the captain, but they cannot move, they are afraid of the warships,” he told Reuters. “We want a ransom and, of course, the captain is our shield. The warships might not destroy the boat as long as he is on board.”
A U.S. defense official told Reuters the U.S. military would have a bigger presence in the area in the next 48 hours.
“We’re definitely sending more ships down to the area,” the official told Reuters. He said one of the ships would be the USS Halyburton, a guided missile frigate that has two helicopters on board.
The official said he believed the pirates had enough food and water in the lifeboat to last about a week to 10 days.
Additional reporting by Washington bureau and Daniel Wallis, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi; Writing by Daniel Wallis, Andrew Cawthorne, and Andrew Quinn, editing by Mark Trevelyan, Frances Kerry and Paul Simao