MOGADISHU, Apr 12 – Pirates holding a US merchant captain hostage on a lifeboat near Somalia could be preparing to transfer him to another ship Sunday, as an Italian vessel became the latest hijacking prey in the Gulf of Aden.
Amid reports of ransom demands and shots fired at US sailors trying to reach the pirates, US officials considered how best to free Captain Richard Phillips and FBI agents interviewed his crew after the Maersk Alabama docked safely at Mombasa, Kenya.
In Italy meanwhile, the owners of the tug captured on Saturday by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden gave more details of the 16-strong crew.
"Ten Italians, five Romanians and a Croat are on board," Claudio Bartolotti of Micoperi Marine Contractors told AFP from the company’s headquarters in Ravenna, northern Italy.
An earlier report had suggested that the boat was US-owned but operating under an Italian flag.
At around noon (1000 GMT), the company got word that their vessel, the 75-metre (250-foot) Buccaneer, had been captured, said Bartolotti.
The news came in an email that had probably been sent by the pirates themselves, he added. He had had no word since then.
It was the latest in a series of brazen raids in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, despite the presence of an international task force there to defend international shipping through the busy passage.
US Navy forces have poured into the region amid the standoff over Phillips, who has been held hostage since Wednesday when the container ship he commanded was attacked.
Four pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama, a freighter carrying 5,000 tonnes of UN aid destined for African refugees.
Its unarmed American crew managed to regain control of the ship, but the pirates bundled Phillips into the lifeboat as they escaped.
At 8:30 pm local time (1730 GMT) the Maersk Alabama docked at Mombasa. Those crew members visible from the dock looked tired but happy.
"The captain is a hero, he saved our lives," said one crew member, before retreating back inside the vessel.
Despite their ordeal, however, the crew was not allowed off the ship and the media was told to stay ashore while US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents were on board investigating.
"Because of the pirate attack, the FBI has informed us this ship is a crime scene," Maersk Line president John Reinhart told a press briefing in the US state of Virginia.
Adrift in Indian Ocean and tracked closely by two US warships, the lifeboat carrying Phillips was now roughly 20 miles (32 kilometres) from the Somali coastline, according to CNN.
Overnight Thursday to Friday, Phillips tried to swim for the nearby US destroyer the USS Bainbridge, but was recaptured by his abductors.
A small naval party from one of the warships approached the lifeboat Saturday, but was forced back when the pirates opened fire, CNN reported from Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is based.
The naval party retreated back to its mother ship without further incident to avoid antagonizing the situation any further, CNN said, citing a US official familiar with the situation.
Meanwhile, a pirate commander in the northern Somali town of Eyl told AFP by telephone that Phillips would be moved from the lifeboat where he was being held to another ship off the Somali coast.
Abdi Garad warned against using force to rescue Phillips.
"I’m afraid this matter is likely to create disaster because it’s taking too long and we are getting information that the Americans are planning rescue tricks like the French commandos did," Garad said.
A US military spokesman in Washington declined to comment on how the US Navy would react if the pirates holding Phillips managed to transfer him to another vessel.
The pirates have demanded a two-million-dollar ransom and safe passage to Somalia for Phillips’ release, New York’s Daily News reported, adding that they threatened to kill their hostage if the US Navy attacked.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin defended Friday’s marine raid on a yacht in the region that left one hostage and two pirates dead.
The marines moved in six days after the French yacht, the Tanit, was seized in the Gulf of Aden.
Although they freed three adults and a three-year-old boy, a fourth man, Florent Lemacon, the owner of the yacht and the child’s father, was killed.
An autopsy and investigation would determine what had happened, said Morin. He could not rule out that the fatal shot had come from the French forces.
But in comments to French radio, he insisted: "We did everything to save the hostages’ lives."
The four ex-hostages — Lemacon’s wife Chloe, their three-year-old son Colin and two other adults — were due in Paris on Sunday aboard a French-chartered plane, Morin told AFP.
Meanwhile, a court in the northern Somali breakaway region of Puntland — the main hub for piracy in the Gulf of Aden — on Saturday sentenced 10 people to 20 years in jail each for piracy.