NAIROBI, Kenya - An American skipper held hostage bypirates tried to swim to freedom Friday but was recaptured secondslater when the bandits opened fire within view of a U.S. destroyer.
Four Somali pirates, who are demanding a ransom, were ready tokill Capt. Richard Phillips if they are attacked, according to aSomali in contact with the captors.
The high seas drama turned more complex and potentially deadlyin its third day as both pirates and American forces rushedreinforcements to the scene several hundred miles off the coast ofSomalia. The crisis stemmed from a thwarted attempt to take overthe U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama freighter and is testing the newObama administration.
The pirates summoned reinforcements, calling in fourcommandeered ships with hostages from a variety of nationsincluding the Philippines, Russia and Germany, according to theSomali in touch with the pirates.
The U.S. was also bolstering its force by dispatching otherwarships to the scene several hundred miles off the Somali coast,which already was under watch by the destroyer USS Bainbridge --named after William Bainbridge, an American naval officer whofought pirates off the Barbary Coast in the early 19th century.
Piracy along the anarchic and impoverished Somali coast, thelongest in Africa, has risen in recent years. Somali pirates holdabout a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according tothe International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group based inMalaysia. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not includingthe Alabama.
Underscoring the high stakes involved, France's navy freed asailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one ofthe hostages was killed, along with two of the bandits. Threepirates were captured. In Paris, Armed Forces Chief of StaffJean-Louis Georgelin dismissed the notion that there was anycoordination between the French and Americans on the two incidents.
Around midnight Friday local time, Phillips jumped off thecovered lifeboat where he was being held and began swimming, saidDefense Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymitybecause they are not authorized to talk about sensitive, unfoldingoperations.
One of the pirates then fired an automatic weapon, the officialssaid, although it was not clear if shots were fired at Phillips orinto the air, and he returned to the lifeboat.
He was in the water only a matter of seconds -- not enough timefor sailors aboard the Bainbridge to do much to help him, thedefense officials said. Because both the lifeboat and theBainbridge are moving, no swimmers or divers could have beenstanding by in the water, the officials said.
The Bainbridge stays a minimum of 200 yards away -- too far tosend its own lifeboat to pick up the captain in just a few seconds,and it has no helicopter on board, they said.
Its sailors were able to see Phillips moving around and talkingafter his return to the lifeboat, and the Defense Departmentofficials believed he was unharmed.
Tom Coggio, Phillips' brother-in-law, said word of the escapeattempt and his captivity has stressed his family.
"Now this is just really taking a toll on all of us," Coggiosaid in Richmond, Vt.
In a statement from the Maersk Line Ltd. shipping company,Phillips' wife, Andrea, thanked "our neighbors, our community, andthe nation for the outpouring of support. ... My husband is astrong man and we will remain strong for him. We ask that you dothe same."
The Somali in contact with the pirates holding Phillips saidthey are trying to link up with colleagues who are holding Russian,German, Filipino and other hostages in ships near the coast. Theirgoal is to get Phillips to Somalia, where they could hide him inthe lawless country and make a rescue difficult, the Somali said.
That would give the pirates a stronger negotiating position todiscuss a ransom.
The Somali, who helped negotiate a ransom last year to pirateswho seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks, spoke on condition ofanonymity for fear of reprisals. He said he has talked with apirate leader in Somalia who helped coordinate the failed effort toseize the Alabama.
He said the pirate leader had been in direct contact with thelifeboat via a satellite phone but lost contact after Phillips'captors threw the phone -- and a two-way radio dropped to them bythe U.S. Navy -- into the ocean, fearing the Americans were somehowsending messages to the captain via the devices. They acted afterPhillips' failed escape attempt.
Negotiations had been taking place between the pirates and thecaptain of the Bainbridge, who is getting direction from FBIhostage negotiators, the U.S. officials said. The captors had beencommunicating with other pirate vessels by satellite phone, theysaid.
Mohamed Samaw, a resident of the pirate stronghold in Eyl,Somalia, who claims to have a "share" in a British-owned shiphijacked Monday, said four foreign vessels held by pirates wereheaded toward the lifeboat. A total of 54 hostages -- from China,Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia andTaiwan -- are on two of the boats.
"The pirates have summoned assistance -- skiffs and mother shipsare heading towards the area from the coast," said a Nairobi-baseddiplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he is notauthorized to talk to the media.
Samaw said two ships left Eyl on Wednesday. A third sailed fromHaradhere, another pirate base in Somalia, and the fourth was aTaiwanese fishing vessel seized Monday that was already only 30miles from the lifeboat.
He said the ships include the German cargo ship Hansa Stavanger,seized earlier this month. The ship's crew of 24 is made up of fiveGermans, three Russians, two Ukrainians, two Filipinos and 12 fromTuvalu.
Another man identified as a pirate by three residents ofHaradhere also said the captured German ship had been sent.
"They had asked us for reinforcement, and we have already senta good number of well-equipped colleagues, who were holding aGerman cargo ship," said the man, who asked that only his firstname, Badow, be used to protect him from reprisals.
"We are not intending to harm the captain, so that we hope ourcolleagues would not be harmed as long as they hold him," Badowsaid. "All we need, first, is a safe route to escape with thecaptain, and then (negotiate) ransom later."
The U.S. sent additional warships, including the guided-missilefrigate USS Halyburton and the USS Boxer, flagship for amultination anti-piracy task force. The Boxer resembles a smallaircraft carrier and has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobilehospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters andattack planes.
The show of force will strengthen surveillance of the area andmay dissuade pirates from seizing another ship, but there are notenough for a blockade in the danger zone that sprawls across 1.1million square miles, said a senior U.S. defense official who spokeon condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discussoperational matters.
The head of Somalia's near-powerless transitional government,Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, appealed to leadersin piracy hubs to work for Phillips' release. The government"wants to see this piracy problem come to an end in a peacefulmanner," he said in a statement.
President Barack Obama, who is getting regular updates on thestandoff, made no public comment about it Friday for a third day.
Phillips, 53, thwarted the takeover of the 17,000-ton Alabama bytelling his crew of about 20 to lock themselves in a room, the crewtold stateside relatives.
The crew later overpowered some of the pirates but Phillipssurrendered himself to the bandits to safeguard his men, and theSomalis fled with him to the lifeboat, the relatives said.
Capt. James Staples, a classmate of Phillips at theMassachusetts Maritime Academy, said he was not surprised by theescape attempt.
"That just shows me that Richie's still ... strong, he'sthinking, he's alert," Staples said. "He's going to take everyopportunity he can to, to make the situation a lot better forhimself and probably get home as quick as he can."