SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

An American captain continues to be held hostage for a fourth day by Somali pirates in a lifeboat hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia. Captain Richard Phillips jumped overboard yesterday and briefly tried to swim to freedom, but he was recaptured. U.S. forces are moving reinforcements to that area off the Horn of Africa, and so are other pirate ships.

Meanwhile, Captain Phillips' freighter, the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama is heading to the Kenyan port of Mombassa. We're joined now from Mombassa by NPR's Gwen Thompkins. Gwen, thanks for being with us.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And when is the ship expected to get to port there?

THOMPKINS: Scott, the ship is expected in the coming hours. These things are never quite specific, but the ship is expected in the afternoon in Mombassa, which will be, of course, in the morning Eastern Time. Unfortunately, this is not the first ship that has been attacked or hijacked by Somali pirates to make it to Mombassa, so there is sort of a procedure.

You know, before the ship gets to its berth, then usually there's a security check, you know, security teams go in and sweep the ship looking for any kind of unexploded ordnance. For instance, in previous sweeps on previous ships, they found, you know, unexploded grenades and other kinds of munitions.

Then after the security sweep, the ship is expected to reach its berth, then FBI officers will go onboard and debrief the crew.

SIMON: And does the crew get off at some point? They've still got a load to deliver, don't they?

THOMPKINS: Well, yes, the crew does get off, but lucky for them they won't have to offload the ship. There are stevedores here who will do that job. But what is expected to happen is that once the crew is debriefed, then they will be shepherded quite quickly out of the harbor. In previous instances, for instance, when the M.V. Faina, which was a ship that was bearing an awful lot of military equipment and was hijacked last year and spent about five months in captivity, when it got to Mombassa in February, the crew essentially took a picture and then they left.

Many are described by security officers here, and also by the harbor chaplain, as being quite shocked and at times despondent once they get off of an attacked or hijacked ship. So they're usually not in a talking mood.

SIMON: Gwen, help us understand a little something about modern piracy. They're not just sailing the seas on their own, are they?

THOMPKINS: No, they're not. You know, the problem with piracy has been ongoing off the East African coast for some years now. And it began as sort of a small fry, Scott, I mean in terms of sort of opportunistic pirates heading off the coast and finding small fishing vessels or yachts or, you know, just whatever they could find in the sea.

But as they continued in this kind of work and realized they could get larger and larger ransoms, then they began to invest in their industry. You know, so they invested in radar equipment and in other kinds of equipment that is useful to them in locating and tracking ships that they think might be attractive ransom opportunities.

And so we hear about the pirates who are actually on this lifeboat, these four pirates who are on the lifeboat with the American captain. And we think that these guys are pretty much in it on their own. But they have all sorts of resources on the Somali coast inland, as well as in other areas of the world, who help them find their targets and make the most of them.

SIMON: And of course Mombassa is a port town. Any sign that all the piracy activity is discouraging people from becoming legitimate sailors on crew boats?

THOMPKINS: Absolutely, Scott. You know, I just finished talking to a man here who's a marine engineer. He's been in the business for about 18 years. He's sailed the entire world many times over. And he said he is most nervous when he is off the coast of East Africa. This man is Kenyan. He lives in East Africa. But he realizes the danger, particularly along this Somali coast.

But he also says that, you know, as the pirates move deeper and deeper into the Indian Ocean, then he is quite aware that there is no easy way to say, okay, now we're in pirate waters and next (unintelligible) we won't be. Because the pirates seem to have the ability to penetrate so many different places.

SIMON: NPR's Gwen Thompkins in Mombassa. Thanks so much.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Yesterday, French navy commandos stormed a French sailboat that had been captured by pirates off the Somali coast. The French navy said they had to act before the ship sailed for port and took the hostages ashore. Four of the hostages were rescued, including a small child, but his father who owned the boat was killed. Two pirates also were killed and three others will face charges in France.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.