Pirates recapture captain

American officer held for ransom jumps overboard

April 11, 2009|By Julian E. Barnes and Edmund Sanders | Julian E. Barnes and Edmund Sanders,Tribune Newspapers

Adrift with his captors in sight of U.S. warships, the American sea captain being held for ransom by Somali pirates briefly escaped their lifeboat by jumping overboard, a U.S. official said Friday, but was recaptured and brought back.

The U.S. military said Richard Phillips, who was taken by the pirates from the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, appeared unharmed after the escape attempt.

The military, which has been maintaining real-time video surveillance via an unmanned drone overhead, observed him moving around on the lifeboat after he was recaptured.

But another hostage drama off the coast of Somalia turned bloody. French naval forces attacked pirates holding a yacht 40 miles offshore. One hostage and two pirates were killed, the French government said. The yacht, which was carrying a French couple, their small child and two friends, was seized this month.

It was one of more than a dozen vessels being held by pirates operating out of ports in chaotic Somalia, which has not had an effective government since 1991. The pirates typically move the hijacked vessels close to the Horn of Africa shore and then open negotiations for ransom.

Last year, the pirates are believed to have collected more than $50 million. In response to a spate of hijackings, including that of a Ukrainian ship carrying 33 battle tanks and a Saudi tanker with $100 million of crude oil, warships from NATO countries, including the U.S., and other navies have been patrolling the area since last year.

Sources in Somalia said they had heard that the pirates holding Phillips had made a ransom demand Friday, and news reports said a Norwegian-owned tanker was freed after a ransom was paid.

But other Somali maritime experts predicted that, facing the firepower of two U.S. warships, Phillips' captors were probably looking for a way out.

Pentagon officials said they had heard, but could not confirm, reports that Phillips was pulled back into the lifeboat by one of the pirates who jumped into the water after him.

His escape attempt came on the third day of captivity for Phillips, 55, who is drifting in a 24-foot lifeboat in the Indian Ocean about 250 miles off the Somali coast. The rest of a 20-person, all-American crew managed to retake control of the 17,000-ton ship from pirates who boarded and attempted to seize it. They are now cruising toward their original destination, the Kenyan port of Mombasa, with a cargo of food aid for African countries.

With the Maersk Alabama gone from the scene, two large U.S. naval vessels, the destroyer Bainbridge and the frigate Halyburton, were keeping watch.

One report from Somalia suggested that the pirates were demanding money and free passage to shore in exchange for Phillips.

"They made a ransom demand earlier this morning, but I'm not sure if the Americans are meeting their demands," said Mohammed Jama, a trader in the port city of Eyl, who sells fuel to pirates. His account could not be verified.

Though the pirates have radio contact with the Bainbridge, it was unclear whether they had a satellite phone.

U.S. officials and representatives of the ship's owner, Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Line Ltd., have declined to comment on negotiations.

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