MOGADISHU (Reuters) – A lifeboat used by Somali pirates holding a U.S. merchant marine captain captive drifted toward Somalia’s lawless coast on Sunday, with U.S. warships tracking it to keep the pirates from escaping to shore.
The lifeboat that was out of fuel had drifted to within 20 miles of the Somali coast by late on Saturday, and U.S. military officials said they feared that if it reached the shore, the pirates might try to escape with their hostage on land.
The U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama container ship from which Capt. Richard Phillips was taken last week arrived safely in the Kenyan port of Mombasa on Saturday, as a Somali mediator headed to sea to try to secure his release.
“The captain is a hero,” one crew member shouted from the 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama container ship as it docked. “He saved our lives by giving himself up.
The ship was attacked by gunmen far out in the Indian Ocean on Wednesday but its 20 American crew apparently fought off the hijackers and regained control of the ship.
Relatives said Phillips volunteered to join the pirates in their lifeboat in exchange for the safety of his ship and its crew. The four pirates holding him want $2 million ransom for him and a guarantee of safe passage.
Three U.S. warships including the destroyer USS Bainbridge were in the area around the lifeboat.
Military officials said the pirates fired on a small U.S. craft that approached them from the Bainbridge on Saturday. No one was hurt by the volley and the craft withdrew.
Somalia has suffered 18 years of chaotic civil war, and the international waters off the Horn of Africa have become some of the most dangerous in the world.
HOSTAGES FROM DIFFERENT COUNTRIES
Phillips is just one of about 270 hostages from around the world being held by pirates preying on the busy sea-lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The Maersk Alabama incident has captured world attention because Phillips is the first U.S. citizen seized and his crew regained control of the ship.
The standoff has forced U.S. President Barack Obama to focus on a place most Americans would rather forget. A U.S. intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s was a disaster, including the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993 that killed 18 U.S. troops and inspired a book and a movie.
A White House spokesman said Obama received multiple updates on the piracy situation on Saturday.
John Reinhart, president and chief executive of Maersk Line Ltd, said the FBI was investigating the hijacking in Kenya.
“Because of the pirate attack, the FBI has informed us that this ship is a crime scene,” he told reporters, adding that the crew will have to stay on board the vessel.
It was still not clear how the crew retook control of their vessel, which was carrying thousands of tons of food aid for Somalia, Uganda and Kenya.
Somali elders sent a mediator on Saturday in hopes of resolving the standoff between the U.S. Navy and the pirates holding Phillips, a 53-year-old Vermont father of two.
“They are just looking to arrange safe passage for the pirates, no ransom,” said Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of a regional group that monitors piracy.
The mediator took to sea in a boat but it was unclear how he planned to reach the pirates.
The gang holding Phillips remained defiant. “We will defend ourselves if attacked,” one told Reuters by satellite phone.
Pirates are keeping about 17 captured vessels on Somalia’s eastern coast, six of them taken in the last week alone.
(Writing by Todd Eastham; Editing by Philip Barbara and Kieran Murray)