NAIROBI, Kenya - Somali pirates and their hostage American sea captain were adrift in a lifeboat Thursday off the Horn of Africa, shadowed by a U.S. destroyer with more warships on the way in a U.S. show of force.
The U.S. brought in FBI hostage negotiators to work with the military in trying to secure the release of Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt. An official said the bandits were in talks with the Navy about resolving the standoff peacefully.
As the high-seas drama stretched into a second day, the freighter that was the target of the pirates steamed away from the lifeboat under armed U.S. Navy guard, with all of its crew safe — except for the captive captain.
The pirates tried to hijack the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, but Phillips thwarted the takeover by telling his crew of about 20 to lock themselves in a room, the crew told stateside relatives.
The crew later overpowered some of the pirates, but Phillips, 53, surrendered himself to the bandits to safeguard his men, and four of the Somalis fled with him to an enclosed lifeboat, the relatives said.
Phillips has a radio and contacted the Navy and the crew of the Alabama to say he is unharmed, the Maersk shipping company said in a statement, adding that the lifeboat is within sight of the USS Bainbridge, the naval destroyer that arrived on the scene earlier Thursday.
The Alabama began sailing toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa — its original destination — and was expected to arrive Saturday night, said Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy whose son, Shane Murphy, is second in command of the vessel. The elder Murphy said he was briefed by the shipping company.
A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, said a Navy team of armed guards was aboard the Alabama.
The Bainbridge had arrived earlier in the day near the Alabama and the lifeboat. Maersk shipping company spokesman Kevin Speers told AP Radio the lifeboat was out of fuel and "dead in the water."
The U.S. Navy sent up P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and had video of the scene.
Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said more ships would be sent to the area because "we want to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days." U.S. officials said the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton was among the ships en route.
The additional ships will serve as a show of force following an increase in the number of attacks and the first one on a U.S.-flagged ship. The vessels would give the U.S. military more eyes on the threatened area and make the pirates think twice before trying to seize another ship, but it was not enough to mount a blockade, according to a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss operational matters.
"These people are nothing more than criminals and we are bringing to bear a number of our assets, including naval and FBI, in order to resolve the hostage situation and bring the pirates to justice," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
President Barack Obama was getting regular updates on the situation, said spokesman Robert Gibbs. Attorney General Eric Holder says the United States will take whatever steps are needed to protect U.S. shipping interests against pirates.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko described the bureau's hostage negotiating team as "fully engaged" with the military on ways to retrieve Phillips.
The pirates were holding talks with the Navy about a peaceful resolution, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Weather in the area was expected to be sunny with calm winds over the next few days, said Josh Newhard, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com, a global weather service. Waves were expected to average between 2 and 4 feet, which is relatively calm, he said.
Though officials declined to say how close the Bainbridge is to the pirates, one official said of the bandits: "They can see it with their eyes." He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of talking about a military operation in progress.
The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships that had been patrolling the region when the 17,000-ton Alabama, carrying U.N. food aid for East Africa, was attacked. It was the sixth vessel to be hit by pirates in a week.
After the pirates came aboard the Alabama, Phillips told the rest of his crew by radio to lock themselves away in a room, according to the wife of Ken Quinn, a second mate on the vessel.
"He said the pirates were desperate," said Zoya Quinn of Bradenton, Fla., who spoke to her husband via phone and e-mail. "They were going all over the stairs, back and forth, trying to find them and they couldn't find them."
Quinn and the crew held one of the pirates for about 12 hours before releasing him in hopes of winning Phillips' freedom, she said, adding that the crew communicated with the bandits with hand signals until they left with the captain.
Quinn said he dressed an injured pirate's cuts with bandages "because he was bleeding all over the ship," she said, adding it was unclear how he was hurt.
Joseph Murphy said most of the lifeboats are about 28 feet long and carry water and food for 34 people for 10 days. The lifeboats are covered and the elder Murphy suspects the pirates have closed the ports to avoid sniper fire.
"I'll guarantee you that if they get all the ports closed, which they probably do, I'll tell you it's probably 100 degrees in there, no air flow, there's no toilet," he said.
Phillips' family in Vermont said he surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safety of the crew.
"What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage," said Gina Coggio, 29, half sister of Phillips' wife, Andrea. Coggio said she believed there were negotiations under way, although she didn't specify between whom.
"We are on pins and needles," said Coggio, 29, speaking from the family's Vermont farmhouse.
Steve Romano, a retired head of the FBI hostage negotiation team, said he doesn't recall the FBI ever negotiating with pirates before, but he said this situation is similar to other standoffs. The difficulty will be negotiating with people who clearly have no way out, he said.
"There's always a potential for tragedy here, and when people feel their options are limited, they sometimes react in more unpredictable and violent ways," Romano said.
Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Omaar said the pirates "have got themselves into a situation where they have to extricate themselves because there is no way they can win."
With one warship nearby and more on the way, piracy expert Roger Middleton of the London-based think tank Chatham House said the pirates were in "a very, very tight corner."
"They've got only one guy, they've got nowhere to hide him, they've got no way to defend themselves effectively against the military who are on the way and they are hundreds of miles from Somalia," he said.
Other analysts say the U.S. will be reluctant to use force as long as one of its citizens remains hostage. French commandos, for example, have mounted two military operations against pirates once the ransom had been paid and its citizens were safe.
Many of the pirates have shifted their operations down the Somali coast from the Gulf of Aden to escape naval warship patrols, which had some success in preventing attacks last year.
Ship owners often do not arm their crews, in many cases because of the cargo. A Saudi supertanker hijacked last year carried 2 million barrels of oil, and a gunshot could have triggered an explosion because of the cargo's highly flammable vapor.
There is also the problem of keeping the pirates off the ships — once they're on board, they will likely fight back. Pirates travel in open skiffs with outboard engines, working with larger ships that tow them far out to sea. They use satellite navigational and communications equipment, and have an intimate knowledge of local waters, clambering aboard commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.
Any blip on a ship's radar screens is likely to be mistaken for fishing trawlers or any number of smaller, non-threatening ships that take to sea every day. By the time anyone notices, pirates will have grappled their way onto the ship, brandishing AK-47s.