Warship Nears Pirates Holding U.S. Captain

Source : http://www.reuters.com

NAIROBI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. navy destroyer reached waters off Somalia on Thursday to help free an American ship captain taken hostage by pirates in the first seizure of U.S. citizens by the increasingly bold sea gangs.

Gunmen briefly hijacked the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama freighter on Wednesday, but the 20 American crew retook control after a confrontation far out in the Indian Ocean where the pirates have captured another five vessels in a week.

Second mate Ken Quinn told CNN the pirates were holding the captain on the ship's lifeboat, and that the crew were trying to negotiate his release.

The Danish-owned freighter's operator, Maersk Line Ltd, said the U.S. Navy warship Bainbridge arrived on the scene before dawn on Thursday.

CNN said the lifeboat, with the captain and four pirates aboard, was within sight of the Alabama. But a regional maritime official said that might have changed.

"We are now getting reports the Alabama is moving toward safe waters," Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, told Reuters.

"But we don't know what happened to the master, whether the pirates took him away or returned him safely aboard the ship."

The attack was the latest in a sharp escalation in piracy in the waters off lawless Somalia, where heavily armed sea gangs hijacked dozens of vessels last year, took hundreds of sailors hostage and extracted millions of dollars in ransoms.

The long-running phenomenon has disrupted shipping in the strategic Gulf of Aden and busy Indian Ocean waterways, increased insurance costs, and made some firms send their cargos round South Africa instead of the Suez Canal.

The upsurge in attacks makes a mockery of an unprecedented international naval effort against the pirates, including ships from Europe, the United States, China, Japan and others.

"The solution to the problem, as ever, is the political situation in Somalia," said analyst Jim Wilson, of Lloyds Register-Fairplay, referring to the 18-year civil conflict.

"Until there is peace on land there will be piracy at sea."

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