NAIROBI, Kenya — Somali pirates and their hostage American sea captain were adrift in a lifeboat Thursday off the Horn of Africa, shadowed by a U.S. destroyer with more warships on the way in a U.S. show of force.
As the U.S. military brought in FBI hostage negotiators, the Indian Ocean standoff between an $800 million Navy destroyer and four pirates bobbing in a lifeboat out of fuel showed the limits of the world's most powerful military in dealing with bandits in a treacherous patch of international waters.
An official said the pirates were in talks with the Navy about resolving the standoff peacefully. Driven solely by economic gain, not politics or religion, the pirates are an unconventional foe for the U.S. military. In recent years, they have shrewdly extorted millions of dollars from shipping companies.
Other pirates were motoring toward the scene, Somali sources told the Washington Post. The second pirate boat was loaded with guns, and possibly European hostages seized in an earlier attack, to deter the U.S. military from any action, the sources said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for their safety.
The U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, which is carrying food and other humanitarian aid for African nations, steamed away from the lifeboat under armed Navy guard Thursday after the destroyer USS Bainbridge arrived. All of the Alabama's crew of 19 were safe except for the captain, Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt.
The pirates tried to hijack the Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, but Phillips thwarted the takeover by telling his crew of about 20 to lock themselves in a room, the crew told stateside relatives. The crew later overpowered some of the pirates, but Phillips, 53, surrendered himself to the bandits to safeguard his men, and at least four of the Somalis fled with him to an enclosed lifeboat, the relatives said.
It marked the first attack on a U.S.-registered ship off Africa in more than 200 years, though pirate attacks have plagued Somalia's coast for years.
Phillips has a radio and contacted the Navy and the crew of the Alabama to say he is unharmed, the Maersk shipping company said in a statement, adding that the lifeboat is within sight of the Bainbridge.
While surveillance aircraft kept watch on the pirates and their captive, the Navy task force that had steamed more than 300 miles to go to the captain's aid showed no sign of confronting the pirates. A U.S. military official said the lifeboat carried 10 days of food and water. The negotiations were being carried out between the pirates and a translator aboard the Bainbridge, with the FBI negotiators consulting from ashore, the official said.
After the pirates came aboard the Alabama, Phillips told the rest of his crew by radio to lock themselves in a room, according to the wife of Ken Quinn, a second mate on the vessel from Bradenton.
"He said the pirates were desperate," said Zoya Quinn, who spoke to her husband from Bradenton via phone and e-mail. "They were going all over the stairs, back and forth, trying to find them."
Later, as a pirate guarded the crew with a machine gun, "one of the crew managed to get the pirate's gun away from him," a Somali pirate informant told the Los Angeles Times. Quinn and the crew then held the pirate for about 12 hours before releasing him in hopes of winning Phillips' freedom, Zoya Quinn said.
Shipping companies victimized by the bandits have been wary of a military confrontation that could disrupt the crucial shipping lanes that run from the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean. Experts said that companies would still rather pay hefty ransoms than arm merchant crews and pay large liability insurance premiums.
Pentagon planners are beginning to adjust the U.S. arsenal to deal with the threat posed by pirates and other stateless, low-tech foes. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently announced plans to outfit the Navy with more combat vessels for patrolling coastlines and to slash program building ships designed for open sea battles against traditional rivals.
But even as more Navy ships, including the guided-missile frigate USS Haliburton, arrive near the Horn of Africa, there will be fewer than two dozen international warships patrolling an area nearly five times the size of Texas.
"It's a big area and you can't be everywhere at once," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.