Wednesday, April 08, 2009
The U.S. is gearing up for a standoff with the band of pirates who hijacked a U.S.-flagged cargo ship off the coast of Somalia as a Navy warship reportedly arrived at the scene early Thursday. The crew of the Maersk Alabama were able to regain control of the vessel Wednesday, but the pirates escaped with the captain as a captive. Kevin Speers, a spokesman for the owner of ship, told reporters that a U.S. Navy warship arrived at the scene, and the pirates and their hostage were a short distance away in one of the ship's lifeboats. Family members said Capt. Richard Phillips surrendered to the pirates to secure the safety of the crew. "What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage," said Gina Coggio, 29, half sister of Phillips' wife. "That is what he would do. It's just who he is and his response as a captain." It is unclear, however, how the standoff will end, given that Western countries in the past have faced legal difficulties in pursuing such pirates in international waters. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Wednesday for world action to "end the scourge of piracy" as U.S. warships raced to confront the pirates. "Specifically, we are now focused on this particular act of piracy and the seizure of a ship that carries 21 American citizens. More generally, we think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy," she said. A defense official said four pirates are in the lifeboat with their captive, and there is no clear evidence that a pirate remains captive with the U.S. crew.
Maersk AlabamaEarlier Wednesday, speaking on the ship's satellite phone, one of the 20 crew members said they had been taken hostage but managed to seize one pirate and then successfully negotiate their own release. "All the crew members are trained in security detail in how to deal with piracy," Maersk CEO John Reinhart told reporters. "As merchant vessels we do not carry arms. We have ways to push back, but we do not carry arms." John Harris, CEO of HollowPoint Security Services, which specializes in maritime security, said that the crew's overtaking the pirates could help prevent future hijackings, especially since the military can't protect the entire high seas. "Any time you can get intel from them, they can give you any kind of significant information, they more than likely will not, but anything we can get will always help us in the future," Harris told reporters. "Naval vessels ... can't be everywhere at one time, just like law enforcement," he said, noting that the U.S. Navy has been protecting the most vulnerable shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. "If you saturate an area long enough in the shipping lanes, if you saturate it with war ships long enough, they venture out. In this case that's what they did. They want 350 miles out of the coast where no Naval vessels were present," he said. As for the boldness of the pirates taking a ship operating under a U.S. flag, Harris said pirates don't care which ship they grab. "We have not seen it matters at all. This is a business to them. They are not intended on carrying what cargo we're carrying. All they want to do is see a dollar figure. They know if they catch a big ship, they get big money. All they want is ransom out of this. They are not worried about crew or cargo," Harris said. Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman said earlier Wednesday he has "no information to suggest the 20 crew members of the Maersk Alabama have been harmed by the pirates." During its one communication with the ship, Maersk was told the crew was safe, Reinhart said. He would not release the names of the crew members. Capt. Richard PhillipsCmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said that it was the first pirate attack "involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory." Wednesday's incident was the first such hostage-taking involving U.S. citizens in 200 years. In December 2008, Somali pirates chased and shot at a U.S. cruise ship with more than 1,000 people on board but failed to hijack the vessel. The top two commanders of the ship graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the Cape Cod Times reported Wednesday. Andrea Phillips, the wife of Capt. Phillips of Underhill, Vt., said her husband has sailed in those waters "for quite some time" and a hijacking was perhaps "inevitable." The Cape Cod Times reported his second in command, Capt. Shane Murphy, was also among the 20 Americans aboard the Maersk Alabama. Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, says his son is a 2001 graduate who recently talked to a class about the dangers of pirates. The newspaper reported the 33-year-old Murphy had phoned his mother to say he was safe. The 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama was carrying emergency relief to Mombasa, Kenya, at the time it was hijacked, for the Copenhagen-based container shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk. Robert A. Wood, Deputy State Department Spokesman, told reporters the ship was carrying "vegetable oil, corn soy blend and other basic food commodities bound for Africa."