FBI assisting in efforts to rescue US ship captain

WASHINGTON (AP) Their goal: Resolve the incident without military force.

As the FBI joined the delicate negotiations, the shipping company Maersk said that the safety of Capt. Richard Phillips is its No. 1 priority. Barack Obama, facing one of the first national security tests of his presidency, declined comment Thursday when asked about the standoff.

Meanwhile, Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and father of the ship's second-in-command, Capt. Shane Murphy, said the ship is headed back to Mombasa with an armed guard of 18.

Murphy said he was told about the development by company officials who are briefing families. Murphy said he estimates it will arrive in Kenya in about 50 hours. A U.S. official, speaking on grounds of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, also reported that a military team of armed guards was aboard the Maersk Alabama.

At the FBI, spokesman Richard Kolko described the bureau's hostage negotiating team as "fully engaged" with the military in strategizing ways to retrieve the ship's captain and secure the Maersk Alabama and its roughly 20-person U.S. crew.

The FBI was summoned as the Pentagon substantially stepped up its monitoring of the hostage standoff, sending in P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and other equipment and securing video footage of the scene.

Defense Department officials would not say earlier Thursday just how close the USS Bainbridge was to the small lifeboat where Phillips was being held. A Pentagon official said the lifeboat was not tethered to the cargo ship and "it's drifting."

But one official, speaking on grounds of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the pirates "could see it with their eyes." Another official said there were several other vessels in the vicinity, but it was unclear whether any were the so-called "mother ship" that pirates use to drop them at hijacking sites.

The pirates were still holding the 55-year-old Phillips, from Underhill, Vt., after the American crew retook the ship Wednesday and the hostage-takers fled into the lifeboat. Hostage negotiators and military officials have been working around the clock to free Phillips.

In his statement, Kolko said: "FBI negotiators stationed at Quantico (Va.) have been called by the Navy to assist with negotiations with the Somali pirates and are fully engaged in this matter."

In Norfolk, Va., home of the shipping company, spokesman Kevin Speers told reporters early Thursday that "the most recent contact" that Maersk had with the ship indicated that Phillips remained in the hands of the pirates.

Joseph Murphy said the company was putting a new crew aboard the ship and that he expected his son Shane to be able to return home soon.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking to reporters at the outset of a meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and their Australian counterparts, said: "We're watching it very closely. Apparently, the lifeboat has run out of gas."

Speers said the company is "grateful" for the assistance of the government and the military and said it is doing all it can to cooperate.

The ship-taking presented Barack Obama with a tough new challenge just as he returned from his first European tour as president.

"We're deeply concerned and we're following it very closely," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "More generally, the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy."

The pirate-hostage drama was the first of its kind in modern history involving a U.S. crew.

"We have watched with alarm the increasing threat of piracy," said Denis McDonough, a senior foreign policy adviser at the White House. "The administration has an intense interest in the security of navigation."

The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships, including the cruiser USS Gettysburg, that had been patrolling in the region. But they were about 345 miles and several hours away when the Maersk Alabama was seized, officials said.

The Obama administration has so far done no better than its predecessor to thwart the growing threat of piracy. Since January, pirates have staged 66 attacks, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

There is too much area to cover and too many commercial vessels to protect for full-time patrols or escorts. U.S. legal authority is limited, even in the case of American hostages and a cargo of donated American food. And the pirates, emboldened by fat ransoms, have little reason to fear being caught.

"The military component here is always going to be marginal," said Peter Chalk, an expert on maritime national security at the private Rand Corp.

According to the Navy, it would take 61 ships to control the shipping route in the Gulf of Aden, which is just a fraction of the 1.1 million square miles where the pirates have operated. A U.S.-backed international anti-piracy coalition currently has 12 to 16 ships patrolling the region at any one time.

Along the Somali coastline, an area roughly as long as the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, pirate crews have successfully held commercial ships hostage for days or weeks until they are ransomed. In the past week, pressured by naval actions off Somalia, the pirates have shifted their operations farther out into the Indian Ocean, expanding the crisis.


Associated Press Military Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

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

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