The first dramatic details of the failed Somali hijacking aboard the Maersk Alabama were revealed last night as the US-flagged ship reached port amid tight security in Mombasa, Kenya.
Despite a barricade of shipping containers erected around the ship's berth on the orders of the CIA and the FBI, several of the crew, who fought off pirates on Wednesday, spoke of their ordeal.
The ship's engineer, A T M Reza, was identified as a hero as his crewmates explained he had taken one of the four Somali attackers captive after attacking him with an ice pick. "I hit him with it in the hand," said Mr Reza, a slight-looking man who said he was from Hartford, Connecticut.
The container ship, carrying food aid for East Africa, arrived with its captain still held hostage in a high-seas stand-off between Somali pirates in a lifeboat and a squadron of US warships.
One American crewman, who didn't give his name, criticised the fuss being made of the survivors while their captain was still being held.
"He's out there dying so we can live," he said, clearly upset.
Unhappy with the big reception, he came to the guard rail to berate the media. "You're a bunch of fucking leeches," he told reporters, before smashing a cup against one of the barricade of ship containers.
Another crewmate, who didn't give his name, later apologised and said that the stand-in captain had sent the man below decks.
William Rios, from New York, described the ordeal as a "nightmare" but said that after 23 years at sea the incident "ain't gonna stop me now".
Media from all over the world descended on East Africa's main port as interest remains high in the dramatic details of the historic first pirate attack on a US vessel in 200 years. The vessel was briefly taken over by Somali attackers before the crew fought back. In the confusion Captain Phillips was taken hostage, with the pirates retreating on one of the Alabama's lifeboats.
Less than an hour before the ship was due to arrive in Mombasa, metal containers were stacked into a high barricade, although officials said there would be no access to the American seamen until they had been debriefed by security officials.
Out on the Indian Ocean, a flotilla of US warships yesterday prevented local reinforcements from reaching the Somali pirates, who are drifting in a lifeboat on the high seas with the American sea captain being held hostage for a reported $2m ransom. Another detachment of pirates made a failed attempt to reach the lifeboat in a German-flagged container ship that was hijacked last month.
"We have come back to Haradheere coast. We could not locate the lifeboat," said one pirate on the German ship, who identified himself as Suleiman, talking to Reuters.
As the Indian Ocean stand-off threatened to enter its fifth day, frantic efforts were under way on the Somali mainland to avert a repeat of the bungled raid which earlier saw French forces storm a hijacked yacht.
Somali elders, said to represent the community of the four pirates who are holding Captain Richard Phillips, were determined to reach the scene "without any guns or ransom", to assist in a negotiated settlement.
Meanwhile, in Paris, authorities were forced to admit that it "could have been a French bullet" that killed Florent Lemaçon, whose yacht had been hijacked last weekend by Somali pirates while it was en route to Zanzibar. His wife and three-year-old child were among four hostages who were rescued when French commandos stormed the yacht, killing two pirates and arresting three more.
France's Foreign Minister, Hervé Morin, said: "There will be of course a judicial inquiry, therefore there will be an autopsy. We cannot of course exclude that during the exchange of fire between the pirates and our commandos, the shot [that killed Mr Lemaçon] was French."
Pirates have been involved in three failed attempts to board ships in the Gulf of Aden since Friday, highlighting the upsurge in sea attacks. In each case they were repelled with the help of fire-hoses directed at them from the decks of the commercial vessels. The same tactic was tried, and failed, during the five-hour pursuit of the Maersk Alabama.
Then, yesterday, came the first pirate success of the day, with the seizure of a US-owned tugboat with 16 crew, 10 of them Italian. There are now more than 280 seamen being held hostage by Somali pirates, many of them on the mainland.
More than one-third of them come from the Philippines and government officials were yesterday appealing for their countrymen not to be forgotten in the rush to save one American sailor.
"We hope that before launching any tactical action against the pirates, the welfare of every hostage is guaranteed and ensured," said Vice-President Noli de Castro. "Moreover, any military action is best done in consultation with the United Nations to gain the support and co-operation of other countries."
Since the deregulation of the international maritime industry, almost all of the estimated two million commercial seamen come from developing world countries, many of them from the Philippines and Pakistan. Only senior officers are likely to be from industrialised nations.
The Bow Asir, a Norwegian chemical tanker, was seized last month and released by pirates after a $2.4m (£1.6m) ransom was paid.Reuse content