Somali elders in fresh attempt to free US captain

April 12th, 2009 - 8:28 pm ICT by IANS  

Nairobi, April 12 (DPA) Somali elders Sunday began a fresh attempt to secure the release of an American captain being held hostage by pirates on a lifeboat surrounded by US Navy warships, reports said.
The move comes a day after other pirates seized an Italian tugboat - the seventh vessel taken in the last nine days.

Pirates have been holding Captain Richard Phillips hostage on the lifeboat since Wednesday, following a failed attempt to hijack his ship, the Maersk Alabama, in the Indian Ocean some 500 km off the coast of Somalia.

Earlier negotiations broke down Saturday just hours after the pirates fired on a small US navy vessel that approached the lifeboat, the New York Times reported.

US Defence Department spokesman Major Stewart Upton said concern for Phillips meant that no information on the ongoing operation could be released.

However, other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the sticking point appeared to be an American demand that the pirates be handed over to the authorities in Puntland, the semi-autonomous region of Somalia where most of the pirates are based.

The pirates want to be allowed to land the lifeboat, which is now reportedly only a few dozen kilometres from the coast, and set free before returning Phillips.

Earlier reports said the lifeboat had run out of fuel. It is unclear how the lifeboat managed to get so close to the coastline.

Media reports said that Somali elders set off from the port of Eyl Sunday in a fresh attempt to find a compromise that will secure Phillip’s release.

Meanwhile, CNN reported that the coastal port of Harardhere, used by pirates as a stronghold, was buzzed by two unidentified helicopters Sunday morning.

Residents of the town fled in panic, believing an air raid was about to take place, CNN reported, citing a local Somali journalist.

The pirates have warned the US Navy against attempting to copy France and using force to free Phillips.

French naval forces Friday stormed a yacht and freed four hostages. However, two pirates and one hostage died during the operation.

The lifeboat is surrounded by three US vessels, which have so far deterred attempts by other pirates to reinforce their colleagues.

A separate pirate group tried to steam the 20,000-ton Hansa Stavanger - a German-owned container ship hijacked one week ago - to help the embattled group of pirates, but was forced to return to anchor.

The Alabama - a 17,000-tonne cargo vessel carrying food aid and operated by US company Maersk Line - was boarded by the pirates Wednesday morning, the first time US sailors have been seized in the treacherous waters near the Horn of Africa.

The unarmed crew quickly retook the ship.

The Alabama arrived in the Kenyan port of Mombasa Saturday night, where some crew members, in shouted interviews with ABC and CNN, said that Phillips had given himself up to protect his crew.

However, the FBI, which is helping in the negotiations and has declared the Alabama a crime scene, has instructed the crew members not to discuss details of the hijacking.

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