Pirates Seize 4 More Ships, 60 Crew Members
Somali pirates captured four ships and took more than 60 crew members hostage in a brazen hijacking spree, while the American captain freed from their grip planned to reunite with his crew and fly home Wednesday to the United States.
Pirates have vowed revenge for the deaths of three colleagues at the hands of U.S. snipers rescuing Capt. Richard Phillips, as well as for two others slain by French forces in a separate rescue last week.
"Our latest hijackings were meant to show that no one can deter us from protecting our waters from the enemy because we believe in dying for our land," Omar Dahir Idle, a pirate based in the coastal town of Harardhere, told The Associated Press by telephone. "The recent American operation, French navy attack on our colleagues or any other operation mean nothing to us."
The top U.S. military officer said Tuesday he takes such comments seriously.
But Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC's "Good Morning America" that "we're very well prepared to deal with anything like that."
Phillips, who offered himself up as a hostage to save the crew of the Maersk Alabama, was rescued Sunday when U.S. Navy SEALs shot three pirates dead after a five-day standoff.
The commander of the USS Bainbridge, the American destroyer from which the SEALs took their shots at the pirates, said the captain's life was repeatedly threatened. Cmdr. Frank Castellano of the destroyer USS Bainbridge told The Associated Press the pirates repeatedly stated "it was their intention to kill him."
Special forces on the warship, believing Capt. Richard Phillips' life was in immediate danger, ended the standoff Sunday with three well placed shots, killing the pirates.
Castellano did not give further details about where Phillips is now. The captain and his 19-man crew will reunite in the Kenyan port of Mombasa on Wednesday and fly from there to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on a chartered flight, according to the shipping company Maersk. They will be reunited with loved ones at Andrews in a private reception area.
Despite Mullen's confident statement and President Barack Obama's warning of further U.S. action, Somali pirates captured two more nautical trophies Tuesday to match the two ships they seized a day or two earlier.
The latest seizures were the Lebanese-owned cargo ship MV Sea Horse, the Greek-managed bulk carrier MV Irene E.M. and two Egyptian fishing boats. Maritime officials said the Irene carried 21 to 23 Filipino crew and the International Maritime Bureau reported 36 fishermen, all believed to be Egyptian, on the two boats.
It was not known exactly how many crew the Sea Horse had, but a ship that size would probably need at least a dozen sailors.
NATO spokeswoman Shona Lowe said pirates in three or four speedboats captured the Sea Horse off Somalia's eastern coast on Tuesday—an attack that came only hours after the Irene was seized in a rare overnight raid in the nearby Gulf of Aden.
The two Egyptian fishing boats were hijacked in the gulf off Somalia's northern coast but it was not clear if those attacks came Monday or Sunday.
MORE THAN 300 CREWMEN IN PIRATES' HANDS
The Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is one of the world's busiest and most vital shipping lanes, crossed by over 20,000 ships each year. It has been at the center of the world's fight against piracy.
A flotilla of warships from nearly a dozen countries has patrolled the Gulf of Aden and nearby Indian Ocean waters for months. They have halted many attacks on ships this year, but say the area is so vast they can't stop all hijackings.
Pirates have attacked 78 ships this year, hijacking 19 of them, and about 17 ships with more than 300 crew still remain in pirates' hands, according to Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur.
Each boat carries the potential of a million-dollar ransom. A senior U.S. defense official in Washington said Phillips was being debriefed Tuesday on the USS Bainbridge. Among other questions, FBI officials and maritime experts are keen to know exactly what each hostage-taker did, to gather evidence for possible criminal investigations or to better prepare for future hostage situations.
It was not clear exactly who was interviewing Phillips. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
A fourth pirate who had been holding Phillips was in U.S. custody after surrendering.
The Irene, flagged in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, was sailing from the Middle East to South Asia, Choong said.
U.S. Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said the Irene carried 23 Filipino crew, while Choong reported it had 21 and Greek marine officials said it carried 22. There was no immediate way to reconcile the figures.
A maritime security contractor, speaking on condition of anonymity because it is a sensitive security issue, said the Irene put out a distress signal "to say they had a suspicious vessel approaching. That rapidly turned into an attack and then a hijacking."
"They tried to call in support on the emergency channels, but they never got any response," the contractor said.
In Washington, Obama appeared to move the piracy issue higher on his agenda, vowing the United States would work with nations around the world to fight the problem.
"I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks," Obama told reporters Monday.
The 19 crew members of the Alabama celebrated their skipper's freedom with beer and an evening barbecue Monday in Mombasa.
The U.S. is considering new options to fight piracy, including adding Navy gunships along the Somali coastline and launching a campaign to disable pirate "mother ships."
The four pirates who attacked the Alabama were between 17 and 19 years old, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
"Untrained teenagers with heavy weapons," Gates told students and faculty at the Marine Corps War College. "Everybody in the room knows the consequences of that."
U.S. officials were now considering whether to bring the fourth pirate, who surrendered shortly before the sniper shootings, to the United States or turn him over to Kenya. Both piracy and hostage-taking carry life prison sentences under U.S. law.