Somali pirates vow to take on US military might if attacked
Xan Rice in Nairobi and Matthew Weaver
guardian.co.uk, Friday 10 April 2009
Stranded Somali pirates holding an American hostage in the Indian Ocean under the gaze of a US destroyer vowed today to fight if they are attacked.
The US navy last night called in a team of FBI negotiators and moved the USS Bainbridge into position to try to secure the release of Richard Phillips, who was being held by four Somali gunmen in a lifeboat some 300 miles off the Horn of Africa. But despite an apparently hopeless position, the pirates showed no signs of giving in.
"We are safe and we are not afraid of the Americans," one of the pirates told Reuters by satellite phone. "We will defend ourselves if attacked."
The statement intensifies the confrontation between the pirates and the world's greatest military power as more American warships make their way to the stand-off.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said it appeared the lifeboat, which was no longer tethered to the Maersk Alabama, had run out of fuel. Helicopters had also been deployed to the scene, while a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft was securing aerial footage. "FBI negotiators stationed at Quantico [in Virginia] have been called by the navy to assist with negotiations with the Somali pirates and are fully engaged in this matter," an FBI spokesman said.
Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, had offered himself as a hostage during a dramatic turn of events in which the gunmen escaped in the ship's lifeboat with their captive after the 20-strong American crew overpowered them and retook control of the vessel. A spokesman for Maersk, the largest container shipping company in the world, said yesterday that Phillips was believed to be unharmed. His family had gathered at his farmhouse in Vermont waiting for news.
Andrew Mwangura, the head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said the Alabama had left the scene and was sailing under armed guard towards Mombasa, Kenya – its original destination – where it was expected to dock tomorrow. None of the crew members were hurt in the attack.
"They will release the captain, I think, maybe today or tomorrow, but in exchange for something. Maybe some payment or compensation, and definitely free passage back home," Mwangura told Reuters.
A stalemate appeared to have been established in which neither side had much room for negotiation. The gunmen know they are likely to be arrested if they give their hostage up while still far out to sea. In Harardheere, one of the notorious pirate strongholds in Somalia, an associate of the gang said that two boatloads of gunmen had left the port to try to assist their colleagues.
"Our friends are still holding the captain but they cannot move, they are afraid of the warships. We want a ransom and, of course, the captain is our shield. The warships might not destroy the boat as long as he is on board."
The Alabama was the sixth ship to be hijacked off Somalia's Indian Ocean coast in a week, and is believed to be the first American-flagged merchant vessel to be attacked by pirates anywhere since the early 19th century. The surge in attacks has coincided with a return to calm seas after the monsoon period, and has seen the main pirate gangs shift their focus away from their favoured hunting ground in the Gulf of Aden, off northern Somalia, which is now patrolled by at least 15 warships in separate EU, US and Nato-led forces.
It is likely that the pirates used a previously captured mothership from which to launch their speedboat before attacking the Alabama. Normally at least nine or 10 gunmen form part of an attack team, and it is not known why just four men armed with AK-47s tried to take the large container ship, usually a difficult vessel to hijack due to its speed and the height of its deck. The ship is carrying thousands of tonnes of food aid, some of it meant for Somalia.
According to second mate Ken Quinn, who spoke by telephone to CNN, the pirates sank their speedboat shortly after boarding the Alabama early on Wednesday. The crew managed to regain control of the ship from the pirates by "brute force", according to another crew member's account. Phillips is reported to have convinced the gunmen to board the lifeboat after agreeing to go with them in order to secure the safety of his fellow sailors.