U.S. warship arrives as pirates’ options dwindle
By Elizabeth A. Kennedy
NAIROBI, Kenya — A U.S. destroyer kept watch Thursday over the waters where Somali pirates held the American captain of a hijacked cargo ship that was later retaken by the crew in an hours-long, high seas drama.
The pirates took Capt. Richard Phillips as a hostage as they escaped into a lifeboat Wednesday in the first such attack on American sailors in around 200 years.
Kevin Speers, a spokesman for the ship company Maersk, said the USS Bainbridge had arrived off the Horn of Africa near where the pirates were floating near the Maersk Alabama.
"It’s on the scene at this point," Speers said of the Bainbridge, adding that the lifeboat holding the pirates and the captain is out of fuel.
"The boat is dead in the water," he told AP Radio. "It’s floating near the Alabama. It’s my understanding that it’s floating freely."
The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships that had been patrolling in the region when the 17,000-ton U.S.-flagged cargo ship and its 20 crew were captured Wednesday.
Phillips’ family was gathered at his Vermont farmhouse, anxiously watching news reports and taking telephone calls from the U.S. State Department to learn if he would be freed.
"We are on pins and needles," said Gina Coggio, 29, half-sister of Phillips’ wife, Andrea, as she stood on the porch of his one-story house Wednesday in a light snow. "I know the crew has been in touch with their own family members, and we’re hoping we’ll hear from Richard soon."
Phillips surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safety of the crew, Coggio said.
"What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage," she said. "That is what he would do. It’s just who he is and his response as a captain."
With one warship nearby and more on the way, piracy expert Roger Middleton from London-based think tank Chatham House said the pirates were facing difficult choices.
"The pirates are in a very, very tight corner," Middleton said. "They’ve got only one guy, they’ve got nowhere to hide him, they’ve got no way to defend themselves effectively against the military who are on the way and they are hundreds of miles from Somalia."
The pirates would probably try to get to a mothership, he said, one of the larger vessels that tow the pirates’ speedboats out to sea and resupply them as they lie in wait for prey. But they also would be aware that if they try to take Phillips to Somalia, they might be intercepted. And if they hand him over, they would almost certainly be arrested.
"If I was a pirate at this point, I think I’d resign and take up gardening," Middleton said.
Other analysts say the U.S. will be reluctant to use force as long as one of its citizens remains hostage. French commandos, for example, have mounted two military operations against pirates once the ransom had been paid and its citizens were safe.
The Maersk Alabama, en route to neighboring Kenya and loaded with relief aid, was attacked about 380 miles (610 kilometers) east of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. It was the sixth vessel seized in a week.
Many of the pirates have shifted their operations down the Somali coastline from the Gulf of Aden to escape naval warship patrols, which have had some success in preventing attacks in the Gulf of Aden.
The string of attacks follow a lull during a period of bad weather. The Maersk Alabama was the 66th attack on shipping this year so far this year, already an increase on the 111 attacks reported off the Horn of Africa last year.
International attention focused on Somali pirates last year after the audacious hijackings of an arms shipment and a Saudi oil supertanker. Currently warships from more than a dozen nations are patrolling off the Somali coast but analysts say the multimillion-dollar ransoms paid out by companies ensure piracy in war-ravaged, impoverished Somalia will not disappear.
The attacks often beg the question of why shipowners do not arm their crew to fend off attacks. Much of the problem lies with the cargo. The Saudi supertanker, for example, was loaded with 2 million barrels of oil. The vapor from that cargo was highly flammable; a spark from the firing of a gun could cause an explosion.
There is also the problem of keeping the pirates off the ships — once they’re on board, they will very likely fight back and people will die.
Pirates travel in open skiffs with outboard engines, working with larger ships that tow them far out to sea. They use satellite navigational and communications equipment, and have an intimate knowledge of local waters, clambering aboard commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.
Any blip on an unwary ship’s radar screens, alerting the crew to nearby vessels, is likely to be mistaken for fishing trawlers or any number of smaller, non-threatening ships that take to the seas every day.
It helps that the pirates’ prey are usually massive, slow-moving ships. By the time anyone notices, pirates will have grappled their way onto the ship, brandishing AK-47s.