NAIROBI, Kenya - American seamen and Somali pirates were locked in a standoff today in the Indian Ocean.
Pirates and their hostage American sea captain were adrift in a lifeboat Thursday off the Horn of Africa, shadowed by a U.S.destroyer with more warships on the way in a U.S. show of force.
The U.S. brought in FBI hostage negotiators to work with the military in trying to secure therelease of Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt. An official said the bandits were in talks with theNavy about resolving the standoff peacefully.
As the high-seas drama stretched into a second day, the freighter that was the target of the piratessteamed away from the lifeboat under armed U.S. Navy guard, with all of its crew safe -- except forthe captive captain.
The pirates tried to hijack the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, but Phillips thwartedthe takeover by telling his crew of about 20 to lock themselves in a room, the crew told statesiderelatives.
The crew later overpowered some of the pirates, but Phillips surrendered himself to the bandits tosafeguard his men, and at least four of the Somalis fled with him to an enclosed lifeboat, the relativessaid. On Thursday, the Alabama began sailing toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa -- its originaldestination -- and was expected to arrive Saturday night, said Joseph Murphy, a professor at theMassachusetts Maritime Academy whose son, Shane Murphy, is second in command of the vessel.
The elder Murphy said he was briefed by the shipping company.
A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, said a Navyteam of armed guards was aboard the Alabama.
Earlier in the day, the USS Bainbridge arrived near the Alabama and the lifeboat with the piratesand Phillips. Maersk shipping company spokesman Kevin Speers told AP Radio the lifeboat was outof fuel and "dead in the water." The U.S. Navy sent up P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and had videoof the scene.
Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said more ships would be sent to the areabecause "we want to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course ofthe coming days." President Barack Obama was getting regular updates on the situation, saidspokesman Robert Gibbs. Attorney General Eric Holder says the United States will take whateversteps are needed to protect U.S. shipping interests against pirates.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko described the bureau's hostage negotiating team as "fully engaged"with the military on ways to retrieve Phillips.
The pirates were holding talks with the Navy about a peaceful resolution, said a U.S. official whospoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Though officials declined to say how close the Bainbridge is to the pirates, one official said of thebandits: "They can see it with their eyes." He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivityof talking about a military operation in progress.
The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships that had been patrolling the region when the17,000-ton Alabama, carrying U.N.
food aid for East Africa, was attacked. It was the sixth vessel to be hit by pirates in a week. After the pirates came aboard the Alabama, Phillips told the rest of his crew by radio to lockthemselves away in a room, according to the wife of Ken Quinn, a second mate on the vessel. "He said the pirates were desperate," said Zoya Quinn of Bradenton, Fla., who spoke to herhusband via phone and e-mail.
"They were going all over the stairs, back and forth, trying to find them and they couldn't findthem." Quinn and the crew held one of the pirates for about 12 hours before releasing him in hopes ofwinning Phillips' freedom, she said, adding that the crew communicated with the bandits with handsignals until they left with the captain.
Quinn said he dressed an injured pirate's cuts with bandages "because he was bleeding all over theship," she said, adding it was unclear how he was hurt.
Joseph Murphy said most of the lifeboats are about 28 feet long and carry water and food for 34people for 10 days. The lifeboats are covered and the elder Murphy suspects the pirates have closedthe ports to avoid sniper fire.
"I'll guarantee you that if they get all the ports closed, which they probably do, I'll tell you it'sprobably 100 degrees in there, no air flow, there's no toilet," he said.
Phillips' family in Vermont said he surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safety of thecrew.
"What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage," said Gina Coggio, 29, half sister ofPhillips' wife, Andrea. Coggio said she believed there were negotiations under way, although shedidn't specify between whom.
"We are on pins and needles," said Coggio, 29, speaking from the family's Vermont farmhouse. Steve Romano, a retired head of the FBI hostage negotiation team, said he doesn't recall the FBIever negotiating with pirates before, but he said this situation is similar to other standoffs.
The difficulty will be negotiating with people who clearly have no way out, he said.
"There's always a potential for tragedy here, and when people feel their options are limited, theysometimes react in more unpredictable and violent ways," Romano said.
The question now, he said, is: "How much do they value their own lives? Because their onlymotivation now is to try to survive this incident." Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Omaar told theAP that the pirates "have got themselves into a situation where they have to extricate themselvesbecause there is no way they can win." With one warship nearby and more on the way, piracy expertRoger Middleton of the London-based think tank Chatham House said the pirates were in "a very,very tight corner." "They've got only one guy, they've got nowhere to hide him, they've got no way todefend themselves effectively against the military who are on the way and they are hundreds ofmiles from Somalia," he said.
Other analysts say the U.S. will be reluctant to use force as long as one of its citizens remainshostage. French commandos, for example, have mounted two military operations against piratesonce the ransom had been paid and its citizens were safe.
Many of the pirates have shifted their operations down the Somali coast from the Gulf of Aden toescape naval warship patrols, which had some success in preventing attacks last year.
Ship owners often do not arm their crews, in many cases because of the cargo. A Saudi supertankerhijacked last year was loaded with 2 million barrels of oil. The vapor from that cargo was highlyflammable; a spark from firing a gun could cause an explosion.
There is also the problem of keeping the pirates off the ships -- once they're on board, they willvery 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 andcommunications equipment, and have an intimate knowledge of local waters, clambering aboardcommercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.
Any blip on a ship's radar screens is likely to be mistaken for fishing trawlers or any number ofsmaller, non-threatening ships that take to sea every day. By the time anyone notices, pirates willhave grappled their way onto the ship, brandishing AK-47s.