Crew of hijacked ship hints at heroic fight to repulse pirates

McClatchy NewspapersApril 11, 2009 

MOMBASA, Kenya — Crew members of an American ship hijacked off the East African coast last week offered the first dramatic glimpse Saturday of how they beat back the four pirates who'd attacked them on Wednesday and continue to hold their captain hostage hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia.

Moments after docking at this East African port, some of the 19 members of the Maersk Alabama's crew told how the chief engineer led one of the Somali pirates into the dark engine room, where the pirate was attacked.

One crew member said it was the captain, Richard Phillips, who "jumped" the pirate.

Crew members, who military officials say were unarmed, then regained control of the ship, but not before Phillips was taken hostage aboard one of the vessel's 28-foot life rafts. The pirates reportedly have demanded a $2 million ransom. They remain near the hijack site, 350 miles at sea, within sight of two U.S. warships that were dispatched to the scene.

The pirates' seizure of the ship, the first of an American vessel in perhaps 200 years, was brazen even by the standards of Somali pirates, who've hijacked more than 40 ships last year in the waters off Africa's most lawless nation.

On Saturday, pirates made yet another score, capturing an Italian tugboat and 16 crew members off Somalia's north coast, far from where the Alabama was attacked, according to a NATO official.

The Alabama's chief engineer, a wiry, middle-aged father of one who identified himself as A.T.M. Reza, "is a hero," said another crew member, a man wearing blue overalls. The men spoke briefly to a gaggle of Kenyan and international journalists who'd gathered for the arrival of the ship in Mombasa, its original destination, where it was delivering food aid for hungry African nations.

The full story of the high-seas showdown would have to wait, however. FBI agents and U.S. diplomats based in Kenya quickly boarded the ship to interview crew members, and Maersk, the ship's owner, had the port authority erect a wall of shipping containers to block journalists from approaching.

One U.S. official said that FBI agents would try to gather detailed information about the pirates, raising the possibility of federal charges against the men if they're captured. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

U.S. consular officers were also on hand to help crew members contact their families. The crew was then expected to leave Mombasa by plane to return to the United States, but officials did not specify a timetable.

Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vt., attempted a daring escape Friday by jumping into the water and trying to swim to freedom. He was quickly recaptured by the pirates and brought back into the boat, but U.S. officials said that the warships monitoring the situation did not indicate he'd been harmed.

FBI agents are negotiating for Phillips' release. But the pirates' situation appeared to be growing desperate given the slow-moving lifeboat, a limited supply of fuel, and the imposing sight of the USS Bainbridge, a guided-missile destroyer, and the USS Halyburton, a guided-missile frigate.

Despite Somali media reports, there was no sign that pirate groups were deploying a flotilla of seized ships and hostages to create a confrontation with the U.S. warships.

"So far, that is all rumor," the U.S. official said. "It would be a very questionable move on their part."

A Kenyan port official who boarded the ship to help steer it into the dock said that the crew appeared unharmed and in good spirits — all things considered.

"They are tired," said the official, Bernard Odemba. "They are missing their captain very much."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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