An American navy warship and Somali pirates holding a US citizen hostage remained at a stand-off on Thursday amid signs that other pirate-held vessels were moving towards the area. Pirates seized the Maersk Alabama, a US-flagged ship, on Wednesday. The crew later regained control of the cargo vessel but the pirates left the ship taking Richard Philips, the captain, as hostage.
The USS Bainbridge, a guided-missile destroyer, arrived on the scene early Thursday and was in contact with the lifeboat, which had run out of fuel. Meanwhile, a US spy plane monitored the situation from the air, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation dispatched hostage negotiators to the region.
The Alabama later left the area en route to Kenya where the remaining 19 American crew members would be repatriated with their families. Maersk Line Ltd, the US subsidiary of Denmark’s AP Møller-Maersk that owns the ship, did not confirm reports that there were now armed guards on board.
First pirate attack on US ship
The 17,000 tonne cargo vessel was on its way from Djibouti, at the mouth of the Red Sea, to Mombasa in Kenya when it was seized by the pirates. The incident, which marked the first time Somali pirates attacked a US-flagged vessel, became one of the first security crisis facing US President Barack Obama. Joe Biden, his vice-president, said the administration was working ”around the clock” on the hostage crisis.
The Pentagon has declined to discuss military operations, including whether it would attempt to rescue Mr Philips. But one defence official said the US navy was very unlikely to mount an operation because it would be “very tricky” and could endanger the life of Mr Philips.
The official said the situation would likely remain a “waiting game” for up to 48 hours while the pirates worked out their next move. While there were reports that other pirate-controlled boats were heading to the area, he said they would be unable to reach the lifeboat with the US destroyer in the vicinity.
The defence official said the Maersk Alabama hijacking could become a “game changer” that would prompt the Obama administration and the international community to tackle the increasingly difficult issue of piracy, saying there had been a “real reluctance” in the past. He said the “key” question now was whether the US military would do anything ashore in Somalia to crack down on the pirates.
The lifeboat ran out of fuel shortly after the pirates left the Alabama with it on Wednesday following a struggle with the vessel’s 20-strong crew of US citizens. The crew had handed over a pirate they had held hostage in a deal that would have seen Mr Philips returned, but the pirates reneged and left in a lifeboat with him, only to run out of fuel only a short distance away.
Maersk Line Ltd, the US subsidiary of Denmark’s AP Møller-Maersk that owns the Maersk Alabama, said the situation had remained much the same throughout the night. “Our main concern remains the safe return of the captain and our latest communications with the ship indicate that he is unharmed,” Maersk Line Ltd said. “We are working closely with all involved government agencies, particularly the US Navy, which has arrived on the scene and is taking the lead in working toward the captain’s release.”
Pirate move to counter US military
The position was complicated, according to one western military analyst, by unexplained movement of previously-captured ships towards the area of the stand-off, in the Indian Ocean 350 miles off the coast of Somalia. The pirates could be seeking “safety in numbers” in the face of the threat of US military intervention. “There does seem to be movement of other pirated ships towards the area in question,” the analyst said. “There are a myriad of different reasons why one would do that. There’s apparently some co-ordination going on.”
The latest incident is part of a rash of attacks off Somalia’s east coast. Three ships have been seized in the area in the past week. Michael Howlett, assistant director of the London-based International Maritime Bureau, said seven of the 13 vessels hijacked this year had been taken in the Indian Ocean, rather than in the Gulf of Aden to the north of Somalia.
Hawiye retaking leading piracy role
The Gulf of Aden saw the vast bulk of last year’s hijackings as the more northerly Darod clan took over the leading role in piracy from the more southerly Hawiye group. But vessels in the Gulf of Aden now increasingly take security precautions and are often in range of one of the many international warships from the US, Europe and other countries’ navies who patrol the area. The Hawiye, who last year seized the Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker, and the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship with a cargo of weapons, now seem to be retaking the leading role.
Container ships are normally regarded by pirates as too hard to board and too fast to be at risk. But the Alabama is the second such vessel seized this week, raising the possibility that these ships may join many bulk carriers and oil tankers in avoiding the area off Somalia – travelling from Asia to Europe and North America via southern Africa.
Military analysts explained the recent surge in attacks on ships in the Indian Ocean as being partly due to the ideal spring weather. Most of the attacks were being carried out by members of the Hawiye clan who have long operated in the Indian Ocean, off Somalia’s east coast. However, some ships captured recently in the Indian Ocean had been taken to strongholds of the more northerly Darod clan, who have traditionally operated mainly in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia’s north coast.
The shift suggested that, while the Darod were still also attacking ships in the Gulf of Aden, they were being pushed towards the Indian Ocean by the growing awareness of ships in the Gulf of Aden of how to combat pirate attacks and the large international naval presence there.