Officials: US vessel now back in hands of crew

April 8, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The American crew of a hijacked U.S.-flagged cargo ship retook the vessel Wednesday from the Somali pirates who seized it far off the Horn of Africa, Pentagon officials said. Capt. Joseph Murphy, an instructor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, told The Associated Press that he was called by the Department of Defense and told the crew, including his son Shane, the second in command, had regained control.

At a noon news conference, Maersk Line Ltd. CEO John Reinhart said that the company was working to contact families of the crew.

"Speculation is a dangerous thing when you're in a fluid environment. I will not confirm that the crew has overtaken this ship," he said.

A U.S. official said the crew had retaken control and had one pirate in custody.

"The crew is back in control of the ship," a U.S. official said at midday, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak on the record. "It's reported that one pirate is on board under crew control -- the other three were trying to flee," the official said. The status of the other pirates was unknown, the official said, but they were reported to "be in the water."

Another U.S. official, citing a readout from an interagency conference call, said: "Multiple reliable sources are now reporting that the Maersk Alabama is now under control of the U.S. crew. The crew reportedly has one pirate in custody. The status of others is unclear, they are believed to be in the water."

The ship was carrying emergency relief to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was hijacked, said Peter Beck-Bang, spokesman for the Copenhagen-based container shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk.

It was the sixth vessel seized within a week, a rise that analysts attribute to a new strategy by Somali pirates who are operating far from the warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden.

Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said that it was the first pirate attack "involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory." She did not give an exact timeframe.

The top two commanders of the ship graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the Cape Cod Times reported Wednesday.

Andrea Phillips, the wife of Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vermont., said her husband has sailed in those waters "for quite some time" and a hijacking was perhaps "inevitable."

Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said his son was a 2001 graduate who recently talked to a class about the dangers of piracy.

Somali pirates are trained fighters who frequently dress in military fatigues and use speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and various types of grenades. Far out to sea, their speedboats operate from larger mother ships.

The U.S. Navy said that the ship was hijacked early Wednesday about 280 miles (450 kilometers) southeast of Eyl, a town in the northern Puntland region of Somalia.

U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said the closest U.S. ship at the time of the hijacking was 345 miles (555 kilometers)away.

The Combined Maritime Forces issued an advisory Wednesday highlighting several recent attacks that occurred hundreds of miles off the Somali coast and stating that merchant mariners should be increasingly vigilant when operating in those waters.

The advisory said the "scope and magnitude of problem cannot be understated."

Douglas J. Mavrinac, the head of maritime research at investment firm Jefferies & Co., noted that it is very unusual for an international ship to be U.S.-flagged and carry a U.S. crew. Although about 95 percent of international ships carry foriegn flags because of the lower cost and other factors, he said, ships that are operated by or for the U.S. government -- such a food aid ships like Maersk Alabama -- have to carry U.S. flags, and therefore, employ a crew of U.S. citizens.

There are fewer than 200 U.S.-flagged vessels in international waters, said Larry Howard, chair of the Global Business and Transportation Department at SUNY Maritime College in New York.

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Associated Press writers Barbara Surk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Pauline Jelinek in Washington; Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen; Samantha Bomkamp in New York; and Tom Maliti and Anita Powell in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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