US crew retakes hijacked ship, captain held hostage

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Washington - The crew of a US-flagged container ship has retaken control of the ship from Somali pirates, but its captain is being held hostage.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials said the US Navy destroyer Bainbridge and other ships are on the way to the scene, though they are hundreds of kilometers away.

US presidential foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough said President Barack Obama is following the situation closely.

Richard Phillips, the captain, is being held captive by pirates, Ken Quinn, one of the some 20 crew members onboard, told CNN in a ship-to-shore phone interview.

"There are four Somali pirates, and they've got our captain," he said.

Phillips is being held in the US-flagged ship Maersk Alabama's 8.4-meter lifeboat," Mr Quinn said.

The crew had a plan to make an exchange for their captain.

"We had a pirate we took and kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up and he was our prisoner," he said.

The crew gave back their prisoner but the pirates reneged on the plan and are continuing to hold Phillips captive.

"So now we're just trying to offer them whatever we can, food, but it's not working too good," he said.

Mr Quinn said the crew is trying to hold off the pirates for three more hours until a coalition warship is expected to arrive.

The Maersk Alabama was carrying food aid bound for the Kenyan port of Mombasa when it was seized. Twenty American crew members were on board.

Mr Quinn said the pirates were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, but the freighter's crew carried no weapons.

The Americans locked themselves in the compartment that contains the ship's steering gear, where they remained for about 12 hours.

The pirates "got frustrated because they couldn't find us," he said.

The pirates sank the small boat they used once they climbed aboard the freighter, Mr Quinn said, so Mr Phillips offered them the lifeboat and some money.

Four hijackers boarded the Maersk Alabama earlier in the day and one is in custody, according to Pentagon officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The three others tried to escape, and their status is unknown, they said.

Earlier Wednesday, the Chief Executive Officer of the company that owns the Maersk Alabama played down the report that the vessel has been retaken by US crew members, who are unarmed.

"We have no facts that confirm the ship has been retaken," John Reinhart, CEO and president of Norfolk, Virginia-based Maersk LineLtd., said at a news conference 12 hours after the hijacking.

The ship was en route to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was attacked about 500 kilometers off Somalia's coast, he said.

The Maersk Line is one of the US Department of Defense's primary shipping contractors, but the Maersk Alabama is not under a Pentagon contract, according to the US military.

The attack was the sixth off Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden within a week, but hijacking of a US-operated ship in Africa is rare.

According to experts, the last pirate attack of an American vessel by African pirates was reported in 1804, off Libya.

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