Alabama ship is in Mombasa; FBI sequesters crew, ship

April 12th, 2009 - 4:52 am ICT by IANS  

Washington/Nairobi, April 12 (DPA) The hijacked and liberated US-flagged ship Alabama arrived late Saturday in Mombasa in Kenya, where it has been declared a crime scene by US investigators, a top official from the ship’s company said.
But its captain Richard Phillips, 53, remained in the hands of desperate Somali kidnappers on the high seas of the Indian Ocean in an out-of-fuel lifeboat, where US soldiers reportedly made a failed attempt Saturday to rescue him.

Amidst uncertainty over his fate, pirates hijacked another vessel, an Italian-owned tugboat, the Buccaneer, according to Italian media. The owner of the 75-metre tugboat, Micoperi Marine Contractors based in the Italian city of Ravenna, said the tugboat had a crew of 10 Italians, five Romanians and a Croatian.

John Reinhart, chief executive of the Alabama’s Maersk Line, told reporters in Norfolk in Virginia, that “the crew is safe” in Mombasa but must “stay on board the vessel” while agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) carry out their probe.

“Since this is an FBI process, we cannot tell you how long it will take,” he said.

He did not comment Saturday’s rescue attempt, nor on Phillips’ attempt Thursday to swim to the nearby USS Bainbridge before being fired on and hauled back by the pirates.

In Saturday’s alleged rescue attempt, CNN reported that soldiers from the ship made the rescue attempt in a patrol boat but came back empty handed after the kidnappers opened fire on them.

In Washington, a Pentagon official told DPA he was aware of the CNN report but “didn’t have anything” on the event “at this time”.

Reinhart said the top priority for Maersk was securing Phillips’ safety, and he refused to comment on any details of how Phillips ended up in the pirates’ hands, nor on how his remaining crew regained control of the Alabama Wednesday, out of concern for his safety.

Reports of Phillips’ heroism, starting Wednesday, the day the pirates attacked, has put him on the front page of US newspapers. But the circumstances of how Phillips ended up in the hands of the kidnappers remained murky.

According to some reports, Phillips offered himself as a hostage to get the pirates off his ship.

In Norfolk, Reinhart dismissed the report as “speculation”.

He said an added reason that the crew and Phillips’ family is being kept out of bounds for the media was to protect the captain as negotiations proceed under consultation with the FBI.

“That is one reason we cannot grant access to the crew, nor can we do anything that puts at risk her husband over the coming day,” Reinhart said. He said he had talked with the Alabama crew, who asked that “we do everything we can to bring home their captain”.

“With the Alabama safely in port, this is an FBI programme. They’re in control,” Reinhart said.

He said the crew would be repatriated as soon as the FBI was finished with them, and in the meantime were being given each a phone to contact family.

He called Phillips’ wife a “brave woman”.

In the dramatic standoff in the Indian Ocean about 500 km off the coast of Somalia, there were reports that fellow pirates steaming to help the hijackers on the lifeboat turned back due to the heavy US Navy presence, according to media reports Saturday.

The USS Bainbridge, part of a coalition force based in the Gulf of Aden, arrived on the scene Thursday morning and was joined Friday by the USS Halyburton, Commander Peter Schneider, a spokesman for the US Defence Department, said.

The USS Boxer was expected to arrive later Saturday.

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