MOMBASA, Kenya, Apr 9 – A US cargo ship’s crew ferrying food to African refugees battled against Somali pirates, pleading for the return of their captive captain and desperately holding out for military help.
A senior US defence official told AFP that a US Navy warship arrived in the lawless shipping channel off war-torn Somalia where the high-seas drama erupted, but provided no further details about any possible action.
It was believed to be the first US merchant ship hijacked since the North African Barbary Wars in the early 19th century, underlining the anarchy raging off Somalia despite an international naval effort against piracy.
The ordeal began around 7:30 am (0430 GMT) in the Gulf of Aden, after pirates seized the US-flagged Maersk Alabama, a 17,500-tonne vessel based in Norfolk, Virginia.
The 20 unarmed crew members fought back against the four pirates and hours later regained control of their vessel, according to second mate Ken Quinn, describing the sixth hijacking off Somalia in the past five days alone.
Quinn, sounding harried in a terse mobile phone call to CNN, said the crew had released one of the pirates they had tied up for 12 hours. But the hijackers were refusing to return Captain Richard Phillips.
"Right now, they want to hold our captain for ransom and we’re trying to get him back," Quinn told the US network.
"He’s in the ship’s lifeboat," he said, explaining the four pirates had taken the lifeboat off the Maersk Alabama and that Phillips was in touch with his crew via the ship’s radio.
"So now we’re just trying to offer them whatever we can. Food. But it’s not working too good."
The ship’s chief officer, Shane Murphy, told his father that the crew used "brute force" to overpower the pirates, who were armed with AK-47 assault rifles, ABC News reported.
Quinn added: "We have a coalition (vessel) that will be here in three hours. So we’re just trying to hold them off for three more hours and then we’ll have a warship here to help us."
The US Navy ship, named as the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge, arrived several hours after Pentagon officials said it was en route, a senior defence official told AFP without providing further details.
A Navy aircraft was providing surveillance information to military officials at the scene, CNN said citing an unnamed defense source.
Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her deep concern.
"More generally, we think the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy," she told reporters, after the White House said it was "closely monitoring" the ship’s fate.
The hijacked vessel is run out of the huge merchant and naval base of Norfolk by Maersk Line Ltd, a division of Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk Group.
Maersk Line confirmed the pirates were no longer on board but were still holding one crew member.
"The other members of the crew are safe and no injuries have been reported," it said in a statement.
"We are working closely with the US military and other government agencies to continue to respond to this situation as it develops further."
A multinational naval task force has been trying to stamp out the rampant piracy in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s most important shipping arteries situated between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
About 12 to 16 warships are operating in the region at any given time, according to the US Navy, covering a vast area of about 2.8 million square kilometres (1.1 million square miles).
As recently as Tuesday, the task force warned merchant ships to increase their vigilance off Somalia.
The 155-metre (511-foot) Maersk Alabama was 240 nautical miles (450 kilometres) southeast of the Somali town of Eyl when it was attacked, according to the US Navy.
It had been due to dock in the Kenyan port of Mombasa on April 16 to deliver more than 5,000 tonnes of relief food supplies to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
"This is going to Africa to people in need. We’re just bringing relief cargo," Maersk Line chief executive John Reinhart told reporters in Norfolk.
He insisted that while the crew was trained in how to fend off pirates, "as merchant vessels, we do not carry arms."
Peter Smerdon, a WFP spokesman in Nairobi, said the cargo included 4,097 tonnes of corn-soya blend which was destined for Somalia and Uganda and 990 tonnes of vegetable oil for refugees in Kenya.
Up to 3.25 million people – almost half of the population – are in need of humanitarian aid in shattered Somalia, which has had no effective central authority since the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre.