Pirates need love too

By Sam Johns

The Somali pirates give new meaning to piracy in the twenty=first-century. Four of them got the whole Pacific Fleet held-up with the kidnapping of the captain from an American ship. They even got over $100 million in ransom money last year, which made the effort worthwhile. Today, with this economy so bad, piracy appears to be good work if you can get it.

Even more pirates on Friday sailed a hijacked German freighter and its crew toward a lifeboat off Somalia where an American hostage was being held in an attempt to help their comrades in a standoff with the U.S. Navy.

In a day of drama on the high seas off East Africa, French Special Forces stormed and freed a yacht held by pirates in a military assault in which one hostage was killed and four others were freed.

A pirate source said the four pirates holding the American captain of a cargo ship, Richard Phillips, in a drifting lifeboat under the gaze of a U.S. warship were demanding $2 million for his release and a guarantee of their own safety.

As you see, the vocation can be somewhat dangerous but it can be profitable as well. … Perhaps, we should consider piracy in this country when you have an unemployment rate reaching 20%, and the lost jobs are not coming back.

The Somali pirates have been holding Richard Phillips since a foiled attempt on Wednesday to hijack the 17,000-tonne, Danish-owned Maersk Alabama several hundred miles off Somalia.

Close by, the destroyer USS Bainbridge was in radio contact with the pirates seeking a peaceful outcome to the standoff with the assistance of FBI experts, a U.S. official said.

Pirates in ships are searching for the lifeboat containing four pirates and their hostage — the captain of a freighter they failed to hijack earlier this week — according to a U.S. military official with knowledge of the situation.

The pirates are using ships they have already hijacked and larger ships from which they are launching skiffs, the official said Friday.

One of the pirated ships is the German cargo ship Hansa Stavanger, seized April 4 off the coast of Somalia.

The U.S. military has been monitoring communications between the pirates, the official said. The guided missile frigate USS Halyburton, with helicopter capabilities, has now joined the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge in the area. A third ship, the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, which has a large medical facility on board, will be there within a day.

Richard Phillips, the hostage, tried to escape from the pirates Thursday night by jumping out of the lifeboat, a U.S. official said Friday.

Phillips was believed to be trying to swim to the USS Bainbridge, which is in communication with the four gunmen holding Phillips in the 28-foot boat off Somalia's coast, the official said.

Some of the kidnappers jumped into the water, recaptured Phillips, and returned him to the lifeboat, according to the official.

The official — who did not want to be named because of the sensitive nature of the situation — said negotiators are viewing the escape attempt as an "optimistic sign" that Phillips is in good health. He has been held since Wednesday, when the hijackers seized control of his U.S.-flagged ship, the Maersk Alabama.
The captain's wife Andrea Phillips thanked everyone for his or her support in a statement.

"My husband is a strong man and we will remain strong for him," she said. "We ask that you do the same. "

Phillips' 20-man crew regained control of the vessel, and they and the vessel are en route to Mombasa, Kenya, according to the father of one of the crewmembers.

The ship's owners — the Norfolk, Virginia-based Maersk company — would not say how the crew regained control. "There will be time for due diligence and retrospective review once we have the safe return of all parties and the opportunity for a full debriefing," it said in a statement.

For the U.S. Navy, the show of strength is more than just a means to resolve a hostage situation, said Chris Lawrence, CNN's Pentagon correspondent.

Attacks in the area have picked up so drastically in recent months that the Navy has to reposition some of its fleet to deal with the threats, he said.

The Maersk Alabama was on its way to Mombasa, Kenya, with a cargo of food aid when it was attacked Wednesday. It was the first time in recent history that pirates had targeted an American ship.

But the pirate source told Reuters from the fishing port of Haradheere, a pirate den in Somalia that another group that hijacked the 20,000-tonne German container vessel, the Hansa Stavanger, a week ago were heading to the scene of the standoff in the Indian Ocean.

The ship, seized off south Somalia between Kenya and the Seychelles, has a crew of 24, of who five are German.

"Knowing that the Americans will not destroy this German ship and its foreign crew, they hope they can meet their friends on the lifeboat," said the pirate, who has given reliable information in the past but asked not to be named.

The Norwegian-owned, 23-000-tonne tanker Bow Asir, held since the end of March, was released after its owners paid a ransom, pirate sources said.

A spokesman for operator Salhus Shipping AS confirmed the vessel, which has a crew of 27, had been released, but gave no details. Sources put the payment at around $2.4 million.

Located on the Horn of Africa across from the Middle East, Somalia has suffered 18 years of civil conflict since warlords overthrew former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

Last year there were an unprecedented number of hijackings off Somalia — 42 in total. That disrupted shipping, delayed food aid to east Africa, increased insurance costs and persuaded some firms to send cargoes round South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal, a critical route for oil.

It also brought a massive international response, with ships from the United States, Europe, China, Japan and others flocking to the region to protect the sea-routes.

Phillips apparently volunteered to get in a lifeboat with the pirates on Wednesday in exchange for the safety of his crew, who regained control of the ship laden with relief food destined for Kenya. The pirate gang holding him remained defiant despite the arrival of U.S. and other naval ships in the area.

"We are not afraid of the Americans," one of the pirates told Reuters by satellite phone. "We will defend ourselves if attacked."

In Washington, the Pentagon had no comment on the pirates' plan to move the German vessel or any ransom demand.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said the decision to launch an operation to rescue hostages from the sailing boat, the Tanit, had been taken after the gang refused to accept the French navy's terms and tried to sail toward the coast.

The pirates far from the coast of the east African country seized the boat, carrying two couples and a three-year-old child, on April 4.

"During the operation, a hostage sadly died," a statement said. It gave no details of the circumstances. Two pirates were also killed and three were captured.

Maritime groups say the likeliest outcome from the U.S. hostage saga — the first time Somali pirates had captured an American -- is a negotiated solution, possibly involving safe passage in exchange for the captive.

The ship's lifeboat has run out of fuel.

Two boats full of heavily armed fellow pirates have taken to sea in solidarity with the four on the lifeboat, but are too nervous to come near because of the presence of foreign naval ships including the destroyer Bainbridge which is close by.

Phillips is one of about 270 hostages being held by Somali pirates, who have been preying on the busy sea-lanes of the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean for years.

They are keeping 18 captured vessels at or near lairs on the Somali coast — five of them taken since the weekend alone.

Yet the fact Phillips is the first U.S. citizen seized, and the drama of his 20-man American crew stopping the Alabama being hijacked on Wednesday, has galvanized world attention.

It has also given President Barack Obama another foreign policy problem in a place most Americans would rather forget.

They remember with a shudder the disastrous U.S.-U.N. intervention in Mogadishu, including the infamous "Black Hawk Down" battle in 1993 when 18 U.S. troops were killed in a 17-hour firefight that later inspired a book and a movie.

Phillips apparently volunteered to get in the lifeboat with the pirates on Wednesday as a hostage for the sake of his crew, who somehow regained control of their ship.

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