Might of the US Navy circles pirate kidnappers

Warships deployed to try to save sailor held by Somalis after attack on cargo vessel
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A US warship and a gang of Somali pirates in an unpowered lifeboat were locked in an uneven stand-off last night far out to sea in the Indian Ocean. FBI negotiators were attempting to talk to the pirates to secure the release of an American ship's captain taken hostage during a failed hijacking. Captain Richard Phillips was being held as a "shield" by four Somalis who are drifting in a lifeboat released from a US-operated container ship, the Maersk Alabama, which they briefly commandeered on Wednesday.

US Navy officials said that several other vessels were in the vicinity of the drifting lifeboat which raised the prospect that one of them may be the pirates' mother ship, a larger vessel used to release smaller high-speed launches prior to an attack.

With the crisis threatening to enter a third day, the US sent in surveillance aircraft to assist the destroyer USS Bainbridge, which is already in sight of the lifeboat, now drifting close to the Alabama. More warships are on their way to the site.

The attempted hijacking has offered a dramatic early foreign-policy challenge to the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was following closely enough to be aware that the Somalis' lifeboat has "run out of gas". When contacted by satellite phone on the launch, the pirates, with their options dwindling, appealed to people to "pray" for them. "We are surrounded by warships and don't have time to talk," one of them told Reuters.

In Harardhere port, a pirate stronghold, an associate of the gang said the gunmen were armed and ready to defend themselves: "Our friends are still holding the captain but they cannot move, they are afraid of the warships. 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."

The confrontation has offered a dramatic illustration of the nature of the new piracy phenomenon which has seen a rag-tag, shoeless army of young Somalis take on the combined might of the world's naval forces and the commercial shipping industry with no small success so far.

It began as the watchmen on the 508ft Alabama watched Tuesday turn to Wednesday while surveying the darkness of the Indian Ocean, some 300 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. The US-operated container ship, with an all-American crew of 20, was well aware of the piracy risk and several crew members had spoken to relatives of their concern at the sudden spike in pirate attacks that week. Five seajackings in as many days had made a mockery of international claims to have quelled the pirates.

Shane Murphy, the ship's second in command, wrote on his Facebook profile that he thought his "number might be up". At around 2am it nearly was.

Four high-speed launches, disguised as fishing skiffs appeared out of nowhere – usually an indication that they have been launched from a mother ship. On the bridge of the 17,000-tonne Alabama, the crew began a series of broad swerves designed to churn the sea behind them and make it harder for the smaller craft to approach.

At the same time other crew members assembled on the decks to man fire hoses in an attempt to blast their attackers. The pirates, armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and highly trained despite their dishevelled appearance, were well used to these evasive tactics. The chase took nearly five hours, according to crew members.

But eventually the pirates succeeded in boarding. As they clambered up the side, the Alabama crew disabled the ship, and sent a distress signal to the USS Bainbridge, patrolling some 325 nautical miles away. Then, crucially, several members of the Alabama's crew concealed themselves. As four armed Somalis came aboard the unseen crew bided their time. The attackers, assuming they had secured the larger vessel, scuttled their own skiff. Among the crew members in hiding was Shane Murphy, a graduate of the Massachusetts Marine Academy where his father, Captain Joseph Murphy, teaches a course in repelling pirates.

Shortly afterwards, when the pirates split up, the remainder of the crew ambushed one of the Somalis, according to Ken Quinn, the ship's second mate. Relatives of the ship's crew, the Pentagon and the ship's owner, the Maersk Line, have all insisted the US seamen were not armed.

They managed, however, to overpower one of the pirates and hold him in a locked compartment of the ship. "We kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up," Mr Quinn told CNN. At that point Capt Phillips, still with the other pirates, appears to have persuaded them to take him as their hostage and leave the ship via one of its own lifeboats.

The rest of the crew then attempted to negotiate a hostage exchange. Speaking at the time from the Alabama, the second mate said: "We are just trying to offer them whatever we can, food, but it is not working too good."

The crew were later persuaded to hand over the Somali hostage but the pirates reneged on releasing Capt Phillips. Nearly eight or nine hours after the ordeal began, the Department of Defence got a call from Capt Murphy Snr saying his son had called him from the Alabama to say the crew had "regained" control of the ship. Questions were immediately asked over the nature of the crew and cargo but the operators said it was carrying food aid.

The first pirate attack on US citizens for 200 years looked set for a Hollywood ending, but for the fate of the ship's captain. Yesterday, in Underhill, Vermont, the Phillips family had gathered amid snow showers to keep vigil, waiting for news from the Horn of Africa.

"We are on pins and needles," said Gina Coggio, the half-sister of the hostage's wife, Andrea.

Piracy and the US A history lesson

*It was piracy, and the heavy burden of paying out ransoms, that first forced the nascent American republic to send its fleet for the first time outside the Americas in the Barbary War against Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli in 1801-05. And it was again piracy and hostage-taking that induced it to return to the Mediterranean to fight a second war against Algiers in 1815. The sums it was having to pay out before it took action were huge – amounting to 20 per cent of all US government revenues in 1800. The action it took was bold and decisive. When the USS Philadelphia was seized in Tripoli in 1803, America's first marines retook the ship and captured the city. The war finally ended when a band of US marines marched across the desert from Egypt to seize the city of Derna. In the second Barbary war, a US fleet seized the Algerian flagship, Meshuda, and forced a peace (soon broken) with the Bey. In both wars, the US obtained the return of all US captives. Moral: beware of taking American captives but don't expect piracy to go away until you destroy its bases.

Adrian Hamilton