Officials: Pirate fired weapon in Maersk Alabama captain's escape attempt

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by Associated Press

WVEC.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:59 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 30 at 11:53 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Defense officials say that one of the pirates holding an American captive fired an automatic weapon when the hostage jumped overboard and tried to swim to safety.

Anonymous defense officials say it's not clear whether the pirate fired at Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips or into the air.

Capt. Phillips was apparently hoping to reach the Norfolk-based destroyer USS Bainbridge that was several hundred yards away. USS Bainbridge has rescue helicopters aboard, as well as lifeboats. The Bainbridge is keeping its distance, in part to stay out of the pirates' range of fire.

Defense officials say the San Diego-based amphiobious assault ship USS Boxer will be nearby soon. USS Boxer is the flag ship for a multination anti-piracy task force. She resembles a small aircraft carrier and has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.

Meantime, a Somali in contact with a pirate leader says the captors want a ransom and are ready to kill him if attacked.

The Somali, who helped negotiate a ransom paid last year to pirates who seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks, spoke Friday on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He says he has spoken with a pirate leader on the ground in Somalia who is coordinating action on the lifeboat adrift in the Indian Ocean. He says the plan is to get Capt. Richard Phillips to shore to negotiate from a better position.

The pirates on the lifeboat apparently fear being shot or arrested if they hand over Phillips -- who was taken hostage in their failed effort to hijack the cargo ship Maersk Alabama on Wednesday -- and they hope to link up with their colleagues who are using Russian, German, Filipino and other hostages captured in recent days as human shields.

Around midnight local time, Phillips jumped off the lifeboat and began swimming, but was recaptured by the pirates, according to Defense Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about unfolding operations.

Video: Navy on patrol at hijacking scene off Somalia

Sailors aboard USS Bainbridge were able to see Phillips moving around and talking after his return to the lifeboat, and the Defense Department officials think he is unharmed.

Negotiations are taking place between the pirates and the captain of the Bainbridge, who is getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators, the officials said. The captors are also communicating with other pirate vessels by satellite phone, officials said.

U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said U.S. warships also are headed to the area, more than 300 miles off Somalia's Indian Ocean coast.

"We want to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days," he said.

Mohamed Samaw, a resident of the pirate stronghold in Eyl, Somalia, who claims to have a "share" in a British-owned ship hijacked Monday, said four foreign ships held by pirates are heading toward the lifeboat. A total of 54 hostages are on two of the ships -- citizens of China, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia and Taiwan.

"The pirates have summoned assistance -- skiffs and mother ships are heading towards the area from the coast," said a Nairobi-based diplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media. "We knew they were gathering yesterday."

Samaw said two ships left Eyl on Wednesday. A third sailed from Haradhere, another pirate base in Somalia, and the fourth one was a Taiwanese fishing vessel seized Monday that was already only 30 miles from the lifeboat.

He said the ships include the German cargo ship Hansa Stavanger, seized earlier this month. The ship's crew of 24 is made up of five Germans, three Russians, two Ukrainians, two Filipinos and 12 from Tuvalu.

Another man identified as a pirate by three different residents of Haradhere also said the captured German ship had been sent.

"They had asked us for reinforcement, and we have already sent a good number of well-equipped colleagues, who were holding a German cargo ship," said the pirate who asked that only his first name, Badow, be used to protect him from reprisals.

"We are not intending to harm the captain, so that we hope our colleagues would not be harmed as long as they hold him," Badow said.

"All we need, first, is a safe route to escape with the captain, and then (negotiate) ransom later," he added.

Phillips, 53, thwarted the takeover of the 17,000-ton U.S.-flagged Alabama by telling his crew of about 20 to lock themselves in a room, the crew told stateside relatives.

The crew later overpowered some of the pirates but Phillips surrendered himself to the bandits to safeguard his men, and the Somalis fled with him to an enclosed lifeboat, the relatives said.

At Phillips' home in Underhill, Vt., family members nervously awaited word on his fate. Sister-in-law Lea Coggio said Thursday a representative of Maersk called to let Phillips' wife know that food and water had been delivered to the lifeboat.

"I think he's coping, knowing Richard," she said. "He's a smart guy, and he's in control. "

Officials at Maersk Line Ltd. offices in Norfolk, Va., did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment Friday.

The Alabama sailed away from the lifeboat Thursday, Maersk shipping line said, and a team of armed Navy SEALs is on board, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.

It was sailing toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa -- its original destination -- and was expected to arrive Saturday night, said Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy whose son, Shane Murphy, is second-in-command of the vessel.

Company spokesman Kevin Speers told AP Radio on Thursday the lifeboat carrying Phillips and the pirates was out of fuel and "dead in the water."

Most of the lifeboats are about 28 feet long and carry water and food for 34 people for 10 days, said Joseph Murphy.

The lifeboats are covered and Murphy, speaking after a briefing by the shipping company, said he suspects the pirates have closed the ports to avoid sniper fire.

Petraeus said the other warships would arrive shortly. U.S. officials said the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton was among ships en route.

The show of force follows an increase in the number of attacks and the first one on a U.S.-flagged ship. The vessels strengthen surveillance of the area and may dissuade pirates from seizing another ship, but there are not enough to mount a blockade in the danger zone that sprawls across 1.1 million square miles, said a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss operational matters.

The Alabama was the sixth vessel in a week to be hit by pirates who have extorted tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.

President Barack Obama is getting regular updates on the situation, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the United States will take whatever steps are needed to protect U.S. shipping interests against pirates.

Steve Romano, a retired head of the FBI hostage negotiation team, said he doesn't recall the FBI ever negotiating with pirates before, but he said this situation is similar to other standoffs. Although pirates release the vast majority of their hostages unharmed, the difficulty will be negotiating with people who clearly have no way out, he said.

"There's always a potential for tragedy here, and when people feel their options are limited, they sometimes react in more unpredictable and violent ways," Romano said.

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