Sunday, April 12, 2009

US 'in talks' with Somali pirates

Negotiations are under way in a bid to free an American captain abducted from his ship and being held in a lifeboat off Somalia, the Pentagon says.

Pentagon spokesman Maj Stewart Upton declined to give details about any aspect of the negotiations, including who is leading them.

But a New York Times report suggests the talks broke down on Saturday.

The captain is being held on a lifeboat said to be drifting just 30 and 45km (20 and 30 miles) off the Somali coast.

A pirate commander has warned the US navy, which has a warship within sight of the lifeboat, against attempting to rescue Captain Richard Phillips by force.

His ship, the Maersk Alabama, docked safely in Mombasa, Kenya, late on Saturday.

Pirates hijacked a tugboat in the Gulf of Aden on Saturday. The Buccaneer has 16 crew members on board, 10 of them Italians.

Reporting from Mombasa, the BBC's Karen Allen says that the US has deployed its top military warships to try to end the stand-off over Capt Philips.

Four Somali pirates in a lifeboat have seized the attention of the world's biggest superpower in one of the most audacious attacks of its kind, she notes.

Pirate warning

A US military official said that early on Saturday the four pirates in the lifeboat, who are believed to be armed with pistols and AK-47 assault rifles, fired a few shots at a small navy vessel which had approached, possibly to conduct reconnaissance.

No-one was hurt and the navy vessel turned away, the official said, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

No fire was returned, the official added, and he denied that the navy craft had been attempting a rescue attempt.

Maj Upton later confirmed that talks were still under way.

Talks failed when US officials insisted on the pirates' arrest, The New York Times says, quoting unnamed Somali officials.

"American officials insisted that the pirates be arrested and a group of elders representing the pirates refused," it adds.

Abdi Garad, a Somali pirate commander, told AFP news agency by telephone from the northern Somali town of Eyl said there was concern that the Americans were "planning rescue tricks like the French commandos did".

French commandos stormed a yacht on Friday to free hostages but one captive was killed during the operation.

The pirate commander said Captain Phillips might be transferred to another boat shortly.

Members of his crew have hailed his bravery, saying he offered himself as a hostage in order to save them when the Maersk Alabama was attacked on Wednesday.

Capt Phillips tried to escape on Friday by jumping overboard and swimming towards a nearby US ship but was recaptured.

'Pirate machine'

The Buccaneer was towing two barges at the time of the attack at 0800 GMT on Saturday.

The crew, which also includes five Romanians and a Croat, are said to have been unharmed.

Another vessel, sailing under the Turkish flag, escaped when its crew used water hoses to repel the pirates who had fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the captain's cabin.

A piracy expert said the hijackings did not appear to be related to the attack on the Alabama Maersk.

"This is just the Somali pirate machine in full flow," Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, founder of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Ltd, told AP.