U.S. warships stalked a drifting lifeboat where Somali pirates were holding their first American hostage on Friday, apparently hoping to win a promise of safe passage in exchange for the captive.
Four pirates have been holding ship’s captain Richard Phillips, a former Boston taxi driver, since Wednesday after making a foiled attempt to hijack the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama several hundred miles off Somalia in the Indian Ocean.
The ship’s lifeboat has run out of fuel, other pirates are too nervous to help them due to the presence of foreign naval ships, and the USS Bainbridge destroyer is up close.
“Other pirates want to come and help their friends, but that would be like sentencing themselves to death,” said Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Program that monitors the region’s seas. “They will release the captain, I think, maybe today or tomorrow, but in exchange for something. Maybe some payment or compensation, and definitely free passage back home.”
Phillips is one of about 270 hostages being held at the moment by Somali pirates, who have been plying the busy sea-lanes of the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean for years. They are keeping 18 captured vessels at or near lairs on the Somali coast — five of them taken since the weekend alone.
Yet the fact Phillips is the first U.S. citizen seized, and the drama of his 20-man American crew stopping the Alabama being hijacked on Wednesday, has galvanized world attention.
It has also given President Barack Obama another foreign policy problem in a place most Americans would rather forget.
Perched on the Horn of Africa across from the Middle East, Somalia has suffered 18 years of civil conflict since warlords toppled former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
Americans remember with a shudder the disastrous U.S.-U.N. intervention there soon after, including the infamous “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.
U.S. SENDS MORE SHIPS
In another Somali-American saga, Captain Phillips apparently volunteered to get in the lifeboat with the pirates on Wednesday to act as a hostage for the sake of the Alabama’s 20 American crew members, who somehow retook control of their ship.
The freighter, which is carrying food aid for Uganda and Somalia, is now on its way to its original destination, the port of Mombasa in Kenya. It is expected to arrive by Sunday night.
Pirate sources in Somalia told Reuters they had sent two boats full of armed men to help their colleagues on the lifeboat. The two boats were staying far apart, to help evade patrols, but were nervous of approaching due to the naval ships.
The USS Bainbridge has called on the FBI and other U.S. officials to help negotiate with the pirates.
U.S. military officials said more forces were on the way and that all options were on the table to save the captain. “We’re definitely sending more ships down to the area,” a Defense Department official told Reuters. He said one of the ships would be the USS Halyburton, a guided missile frigate that has two helicopters on board.
Given the growing U.S. response, the four pirates appear to have realized they may have overplayed their hand. Reached by Reuters via satellite phone, they sounded desperate. “We are surrounded by warships and don’t have time to talk,” one said. “Please pray for us.”
Last year saw 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.
As the patrols mainly focused on the Gulf of Aden, the gateway to the Suez, the pirates began moving further afield and have been striking as far south as Indian Ocean waters near the Seychelles and Madagascar.
Analysts say the attack on the Alabama could lead to a new phase in international efforts to stop piracy.
“Piracy may be a centuries-old crime, but we are working to bring an appropriate, 21st-century response,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
With a vast area for the pirates to roam in, however, analysts say the only real solution is peace and stable government in Somalia itself.
“All the world’s naval forces do not have enough available ships to protect the 20,000 vessels that pass through the Gulf of Aden annually and the wider 2.5 million square miles of ocean where Somali pirate attacks occurred in recent years,” said U.S. Horn of Africa scholar David Shinn in a recent paper.
(Additional reporting by Washington bureau, Andrew Cawthorne in Nairobi and William Maclean in London; writing by Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Andrew Roche)