Somali pirates negotiate with US Navy over hostage

April 10th, 2009 - 5:08 am ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama Nairobi/Washington, April 10 (DPA) In a dramatic Indian Ocean standoff Thursday, Somali pirates held the captain of a US-operated vessel hostage on a stranded lifeboat and were negotiating with US Navy officials who arrived on a destroyer.
The USS Bainbridge, part of a coalition naval force sent to combat piracy in the region, arrived early Thursday morning and had made contact with the lifeboat, according to a spokesman for Maersk, the company that operates the Maersk Alabama cargo ship.

The Alabama, whose crew fought off Wednesday’s attack, has steamed away from the area and was headed toward its original destination of Mombasa, Kenya.

But captain Richard Phillips, who was snatched by the hijackers in the struggle, was still held on a lifeboat the attackers took from the Alabama. The lifeboat is out of fuel, US officials said, meaning it has no getaway options.

“We are monitoring the situation obviously very closely,” US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Washington. “The safe return of the captain is the top priority.”

President Barack Obama was getting regular updates on the hostage situation, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Pirates Wednesday boarded and seized the Maersk Alabama, with 20 US citizens on board.

The event was a watermark in the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa for two reasons: it was the first time a ship with a US crew had been seized, and the first time seamen have successfully fought back against the Somali pirates.

The 17,000-tonne Alabama, owned by the Danish firm Maersk, was taken in the Indian Ocean, around 500 km off the Somali coast, and is carrying food supplies and aid for three African countries.

Maersk spokesman Kevin Speers said when the ship makes port, “the crew can be repatriated to the US and reunited with their families”.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was helping the Navy negotiate the captain’s release. Navy forces are reluctant to storm ships to free crew members being held hostage, instead concentrating on preventative measures.

Somali pirates have stepped up their attacks in recent weeks after a brief lull. The Maersk Alabama was the sixth ship to have been seized since Saturday.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, called for a stronger and increased international naval presence off the Somali coast.

He said the increasing incidents of piracy were “an insult to international legality” and that these “acts of criminality must not be allowed to follow the same path of impunity of the past”.

The 32,000-tonne British-owned Malaspina Castle, flying a Panama flag, was seized Monday along with its crew of 24 from Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine and the Philippines.

Taiwanese fishing vessel MV Win Far was taken on the same day near the Seychelles. Its crew of 30 is from Taiwan, China, Indonesia and the Philippines.

A French yacht, a Yemeni tugboat and a German container ship were also seized over the weekend.

Pirate gangs in 2008 seized dozens of vessels and earned tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, prompting the international community to hurriedly send warships to the region.

Around 15 warships from the European Union, a coalition task force and individual countries such as Russia, the US, India and China patrol an area of about 2.85 million sq km.

However, the pirates are now going further, venturing into the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of Somalia, to avoid the patrols.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the military was working with its allies to see how to develop a broader plan to deal with piracy in the region.

“This is an old scourge,” she said. “We will be consulting closely and widely to determine … what further steps the international community believes should be taken.”

The United Nations and African Union, together with the League of Arab States, the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the European Union were to meet April 23 to discuss the security situation in Somalia.

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