McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
NAIROBI, Kenya — Pirates holding an American ship captain hostage in a lifeboat off the coast of East Africa on Friday demanded $2 million for his release, maritime officials said, hours after the captain attempted a daring escape from his captors.
The American, Richard Phillips, jumped overboard into shark-infested waters but was quickly recaptured and brought back onto the lifeboat, a U.S. official said. In a statement released after the incident, the owner of Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, said that Phillips remained in contact with U.S. warships on the scene and appeared unharmed.
As U.S. officials continued to negotiate with the pirates for Phillips' release, the escape attempt was a sign that veteran captain was still in fighting shape after two days in captivity aboard a 28-foot lifeboat some 350 miles off the coast of Somalia.
In a separate incident involving another ship hijacked in the notoriously dangerous waters off Somalia, the French government said its navy on Friday freed a yacht that was captured over the weekend, but that one hostage had died in a gun battle between pirates and French special forces. Four other hostages were rescued unharmed. French forces killed two pirates and captured three others.
There was no sign the Pentagon was preparing to take such dramatic steps in the standoff involving Phillips, whose U.S.-flagged container ship was hijacked Wednesday in the first capture of a U.S. vessel in recent memory. The 20-man crew of the Alabama, which was carrying food aid to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, regained control of the ship from the four pirates, who took Phillips hostage.
With two U.S. naval vessels watching the situation — the USS Bainbridge, a guided missile destroyer, and the USS Halyburton, a guided missile frigate — the Pentagon was aiming for show of might that could force the pirates' hand. But U.S. officials denied reports in the Somali news media that the pirates were planning a confrontation by sending a flotilla of stolen vessels, including the hostages aboard, as their own reinforcements.
"I don't believe any (pirate ships) have been observed anywhere nearby the area in which we are operating right now. And we do have some sense of where they are," said the official, who has been following the situation closely but asked not to be further identified due to the delicacy of the situation.
He said a number of Somali "mother ships" were off the Somali coast, some with hijacked foreign vessels in tow. But none was making any attempt to intervene between the U.S. Navy and the lifeboat with the hostage and four pirates aboard.
The lifeboat, which has enough food and water for 10 days and a range of about 100 miles, was believed to be moving slowly toward the coastline of Somalia. But the official said the U.S. military had "clearly no intention to allow it go anywhere near shore or allow it closer to another vessel."
Still, some pirates appeared to be spoiling for a fight. Residents in Galkaayo, a town that serves as a base for pirate groups, said 20 pirates set off by road for the coastal town of Eyl in a convoy of 4-wheel-drive vehicles late on Friday night.
"We have to defend ourselves," said a pirate who joined the expedition, who identified himself only as Jamal. "We have to get back our guys. We have to fight to the end."
Experts said it was doubtful, however, that the pirates would attempt a dramatic confrontation with U.S. warships that could result in casualties. Maritime officials said their best option now was to give up Phillips in exchange for being allowed to return to Somalia.
"That's how it will end," predicted Andrew Mwangura, the director of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, who tracks piracy from Mombasa. "They have no bargaining power now. They don't have a ship, they don't have cargo, and they are surrounded."
The crew of the Alabama was reportedly sailing to Mombasa, its original destination, and was expected to arrive Saturday night, Mwangura said.
(Landay reported from Washington. Special correspondent Ibrahim Elmi contributed to this article from Galkaayo, Somalia.)
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