Somali pirates are holding the captain of a U.S.-flagged merchant ship Wednesday after earlier attacking and boarding the vessel in the Indian Ocean, Pentagon officials said.
The American crew has taken back control of the container ship Maersk Alabama after sailors overpowered the pirates, but at least some of the attackers now are on a lifeboat with the captain, news services are reporting.
That was confirmed by the ship's second mate, Ken Quinn, in a brief satellite phone interview with CNN. Quinn said the ship's crew managed to overpower one of the pirates and tried to exchange him for the captain. He said the pirates apparently took back their man without freeing the captain.
The attack took place early Wednesday morning some 400 miles east of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. The container ship, carrying humanitarian food aid, was en route to the Kenyan port of Mombasa. The Danish-owned freighter had an American crew of 22, who reportedly tried to evade as many as three pirate speedboats that gave chase.
Defense Department officials say the ship's crew disabled the vessel when four pirates got aboard. The pirates, unable to force the disabled ship into a Somali port, then took the captain hostage and left in one of the ship's lifeboats.
The U.S. Navy says P-3 planes and unmanned drones in the area have spotted the lifeboat with the captain and the pirates aboard. A Navy ship, the USS Bainbridge, is now steaming toward the scene but is reported to be hours away. Officials say that by as early as 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. EDT they could be in range to launch Seahawk helicopters to visit the ship and monitor the lifeboat.
The Associated Press quoted a crew member reached by satellite phone, who said that pirates initially took the whole crew hostage but that crew members managed to overpower one pirate and free themselves. The remaining pirates apparently escaped with the captain.
Earlier, at a noon news conference, Maersk Line Ltd. CEO John Reinhart was reluctant to give details of the drama.
"Speculation is a dangerous thing when you're in a fluid environment. I will not confirm that the crew has overtaken this ship," he said.
Reinhart said that the company was working to contact families of the crew.
The company identified the captain as Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt. The second officer is Shane Murphy, a graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where his father, Joseph Murphy, is a professor. Murphy told the AP that he had received a telephone call from his son, saying that the crew was safe.
In Washington, Pentagon officials scrambled to figure out what was happening on the ship, which was hundreds of miles away from the nearest American warship. They declined to comment on what action might be taken to deal with a hijacking. Maritime experts point out that once gunmen have boarded a ship, there's very little that can be done militarily, for fear that crew members might be harmed.
The stakes are high for successful pirate gangs. The average ransom for ships captured off the Somali coast is estimated to be about $2 million, an enormous sum in a country where many people cannot survive without foreign food aid.
Shipping companies don't like to reveal how much they and their insurance companies pay in ransoms, but some experts believe the pirates extorted more than $100 million last year.
Action to evade pirates usually consists of steaming the ship under attack at full speed, making quick and unpredictable course changes, and blasting the ship's fire hoses at points on the hull where the pirates might try to throw grappling hooks and ladders.
The pirates, who often operate in speedboats deployed from a mother ship, have become increasingly well-armed, wielding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. Their most effective threat against merchant vessels is the danger that a grenade or rocket could touch off explosions and fire aboard ship.
The pirates typically force the crews of captured ships to anchor them close to pirate havens, such as the port of Eyl in the Somali region of Puntland on the Horn of Africa. There they are kept while the pirates negotiate a ransom for the crew, the vessel and its cargo.
One of the highest-profile attacks last year was the seizure of the MV Faina, a Ukrainian-owned cargo ship that was loaded with more than 30 Soviet-made tanks and other weapons, including anti-aircraft guns. Pirates also captured the Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star, which was carrying some 2 million barrels of crude oil. Both ships were later ransomed.
Pirate attacks declined sharply in the first two months of this year, in part because the U.S., the countries of the European Union, Russia, India and China all sent warships to patrol the Gulf of Aden, where most of last year's attacks took place.
The gulf is one of the busiest trade routes in the world, funneling ships between Asia and Europe. It's an enormous area, but the international warships were able to confine shipping to fairly narrow lanes where they could escort ships in protected convoys.
Piracy tends to subside during winter months, when rough seas make it difficult for small boats to chase and board large merchant ships. But at least 15 ships were hijacked last month, according to monitoring agencies, as weather in the region improved.
The pirates also have moved their operations away from the heavily guarded sea lanes of the gulf and out into the Indian Ocean.
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, U.S. commander of the Combined Maritime Forces, said the total area threatened by piracy now amounts to more than 1 million square miles — roughly four times as large as Texas. The length of the Somali coastline is roughly the same length as the eastern seaboard of the United States, Gortney said in a statement before the latest attack took place.
Experts say the real problem is that Somalia has not had an effective central government for nearly two decades, making it impossible to enforce its own laws or police its coastline.
As Gortney put it, "international naval forces alone will not be able to solve the problem of piracy at sea. Piracy is a problem that starts ashore."