, MOMBASA, April 10 – US military forces prepared to send more muscle to the scene of a stand-off with Somalia pirates holding an American hostage on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean on Friday.
Tensions mounted on the high seas with both the pirates and the US Navy promising to move in reinforcements while an American captain stayed captive to the pirates as the saga approached its third day.
Four pirates on Wednesday hijacked the Maersk Alabama aid ship before being overpowered by the unarmed American crew and ousted from the 17,500-tonne Danish-operated container ship.
More naval ships were to join within 48 hours the destroyer USS Bainbridge that arrived overnight to help secure the release of the American, US defense officials said.
"The safe return of the captain is the top priority," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Washington.
The reinforcements were coming from naval forces already deployed in the wider region, including a counter-piracy task force out of Bahrain, officials said.
"There’s more naval assets being moved south from where they are towards where the (USS) Bainbridge is currently engaged in its activity with this pirate ship," an official with the US Central Command, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
The Navy earlier had called in negotiators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation "to assist with negotiations with the Somali pirates and are fully engaged in this matter," the FBI said in a statement.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the pirates’ lifeboat was "apparently" out of fuel though military officials declined to confirm her account.
A spokesman for the Maersk shipping company, Kevin Speers, told reporters that "most recent contact with the Alabama indicated that the captain remains a hostage but is unharmed at this time."
Meanwhile the freighter was boarded by military personnel and headed to its destination port of Mombasa, in Kenya, with its cargo of aid destined for African refugees, US and company officials said.
The guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge arrived overnight to monitor the situation and prevent the pirates from securing their hostage on a larger ship, accompanied by a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft overhead.
It was believed to be the first American 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 US destroyer facing off against the hijackers ironically is named after commodore William Bainbridge, an American who fought pirates in the Barbary wars and was at one point captured along with his crew.
A commander from the gang of Somali pirates who took the ship said more pirates were on their way to try and help those holding the hostage, who are effectively surrounded.
"We are planning to reinforce our colleagues who told us that a navy ship was closing in on them and I hope the matter will soon be solved," Abdi Garad told AFP by phone from the northern pirate lair of Eyl.
"They are closely monitored by a navy ship and I think it will be difficult for us to reach the area promptly," he said, with US helicopters swirling the area.
"But we are making final preparations and will try our best to save our friends."
The Maersk Alabama’s chief officer, Shane Murphy, reportedly told his father that the crew used "brute force" to overpower the pirates, who were armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
The incident was the latest in a series across the western Indian Ocean, a vital global shipping lane where increasingly brazen pirates on small skiffs have hijacked anything from small sailing yachts to huge super-tankers.
The Maersk Alabama had been due to dock in Mombasa on April 16 to deliver more than 5,000 tonnes of relief food supplies to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
Over the past week, pirates have seized a German vessel, a small French sailing yacht, a British-owned Italian-operated freighter, a Taiwanese fishing vessel and a Yemeni tugboat.
Analysts and military officers say pirate attacks are likely to grow given the lucrative ransom money paid by shipping companies and the lawless nature of Somalia.
Clinton called the pirates "nothing more than criminals" and Pentagon officials said there was no sign the hijackers had links to Islamist militants in Somalia.