An American skipper held hostage by pirates tried to swim to freedom Friday but was recaptured seconds later when the bandits opened fire within view of a U.S. destroyer.
Four Somali pirates, who are demanding a ransom, were ready to kill Capt. Richard Phillips if they are attacked, according to a Somali in contact with the captors.
The high seas drama turned more complex and potentially deadly in its third day as both pirates and American forces rushed reinforcements to the scene several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia. The crisis stemmed from a thwarted attempt to take over the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama freighter and is testing the new Obama administration.
The pirates summoned reinforcements, calling in four commandeered ships with hostages from a variety of nations including the Philippines, Russia and Germany, according to the Somali in touch with the pirates.
The U.S. was also bolstering its force by dispatching other warships to the scene several hundred miles off the Somali coast, which already was under watch by the destroyer USS Bainbridge — named after William Bainbridge, an American naval officer who fought pirates off the Barbary Coast in the early 19th century.
Piracy along the anarchic and impoverished Somali coast, the longest in Africa, has risen in recent years. Somali pirates hold about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group based in Malaysia. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Alabama.
Underscoring the high stakes involved, France’s navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed, along with two of the bandits. Three pirates were captured. French officials said there was no connection between their operation and the U.S. standoff.
Phillips, of Underhill, Vt., was seized Wednesday after he thwarted the pirates’ bid to hijack the Alabama, which was carrying food aid for hungry people in Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda.
Around midnight Friday local time, Phillips jumped off the covered lifeboat where he was being held and began swimming, said Defense Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about sensitive, unfolding operations.
One of the pirates then fired an automatic weapon, the officials said, although it was not clear if shots were fired at Phillips or into the air, and he returned to the lifeboat.
He was in the water only a matter of seconds — not enough time for sailors aboard the Bainbridge to do much to help him, the defense officials said. Because both the lifeboat and the Bainbridge are moving, no swimmers or divers could have been standing by in the water, the officials said.
The Bainbridge stays a minimum of 200 yards away — too far to send its own lifeboat to pick up the captain in just a few seconds, and it has no helicopter on board, they said.
Its sailors were able to see Phillips moving around and talking after his return to the lifeboat, and the Defense Department officials believed he was unharmed.
Tom Coggio, Phillips’ brother-in-law, said word of the escape attempt and his captivity has stressed his family.
“Now this is just really taking a toll on all of us,” Coggio said in Richmond, Vt.
In a statement from the Maersk Line Ltd. shipping company, Phillips’ wife, Andrea, thanked “our neighbors, our community, and the nation for the outpouring of support. … My husband is a strong man and we will remain strong for him. We ask that you do the same.”
The Somali in contact with the pirates holding Phillips said they are trying to link up with colleagues who are holding Russian, German, Filipino and other hostages in ships near the coast. Their goal is to get Phillips to Somalia, where they could hide him in the lawless country and make a rescue difficult, the Somali said.
That would give the pirates a stronger negotiating position to discuss a ransom.
The Somali, who helped negotiate a ransom last year to pirates who seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He said he has talked with a pirate leader in Somalia who helped coordinate the failed effort to seize the Alabama.
He said the pirate leader had been in direct contact with the lifeboat via a satellite phone but lost contact after Phillips’ captors threw the phone — and a two-way radio dropped to them by the U.S. Navy — into the ocean, fearing the Americans were somehow sending messages to the captain via the devices. They acted after Phillips’ failed escape attempt.
Negotiations had been taking place between the pirates and the captain of the Bainbridge, who is getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators, the U.S. officials said. The captors had been communicating with other pirate vessels by satellite phone, they said.
Mohamed Samaw, a resident of the pirate stronghold in Eyl, Somalia, who claims to have a “share” in a British-owned ship hijacked Monday, said four foreign vessels held by pirates were headed toward the lifeboat. A total of 54 hostages — from China, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia and Taiwan — are on two of the boats.
“The pirates have summoned assistance — skiffs and mother ships are heading towards the area from the coast,” said a Nairobi-based diplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Samaw said two ships left Eyl on Wednesday. A third sailed from Haradhere, another pirate base in Somalia, and the fourth was a Taiwanese fishing vessel seized Monday that was already only 30 miles from the lifeboat.
He said the ships include the German cargo ship Hansa Stavanger, seized earlier this month. The ship’s crew of 24 is made up of five Germans, three Russians, two Ukrainians, two Filipinos and 12 from Tuvalu.
Another man identified as a pirate by three residents of Haradhere also said the captured German ship had been sent.
“They had asked us for reinforcement, and we have already sent a good number of well-equipped colleagues, who were holding a German cargo ship,” said the man, who asked that only his first name, Badow, be used to protect him from reprisals.
“We are not intending to harm the captain, so that we hope our colleagues would not be harmed as long as they hold him,” Badow said. “All we need, first, is a safe route to escape with the captain, and then (negotiate) ransom later.”
The U.S. sent additional warships, including the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton and the USS Boxer, flagship for a multination anti-piracy task force. The Boxer resembles a small aircraft carrier and has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.
The show of force will strengthen surveillance of the area and may dissuade pirates from seizing another ship, but there are not enough for a blockade in the danger zone that sprawls across 1.1 million square miles, said a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss operational matters.
The head of Somalia’s near-powerless transitional government, Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, appealed to leaders in piracy hubs to work for Phillips’ release. The government “wants to see this piracy problem come to an end in a peaceful manner,” he said in a statement.
President Barack Obama, who is getting regular updates on the standoff, declined to answer questions about it Friday for a third day.
Phillips, 53, thwarted the takeover of the 17,000-ton Alabama 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 surrendered himself to the bandits to safeguard his men, and the Somalis fled with him to the lifeboat, the relatives said.
Capt. James Staples, a classmate of Phillips at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said he was not surprised by the escape attempt.
“That just shows me that Richie’s still … strong, he’s thinking, he’s alert,” Staples said. “He’s going to take every opportunity he can to, to make the situation a lot better for himself and probably get home as quick as he can.”