NAIROBI – The FBI and U.S. Navy were in delicate negotiations Thursday with Somali pirates holding an American captain in a lifeboat drifting in the Indian Ocean, as one U.S. destroyer hulked nearby and additional naval ships were speeding to the scene, U.S. officials said.
The USS Bainbridge, which arrived Thursday morning, launched a surveillance drone that fed live color video of the lifeboat back to the ship, though it was unable to provide a clear view of Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt.
“But as far as we know, the captain is OK,” a Defense Department official said on the condition of anonymity.
Phillips, stuck in a hot lifeboat with no fuel and no toilet and bobbing in a rolling sea, had been provided with “batteries and other provisions,” according to a statement from his company, Maersk Line of Norfolk, Va., which said he remained unharmed.
At the same time, Somali sources said other pirates were motoring toward the scene off the Horn of Africa country, where their colleagues were thwarted Wednesday by the American crew of the 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama container ship. 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 aim of pirates in the second boat was to rescue their comrades and probably also secure a cut of any ransom eventually paid, said the sources, who include a pirate’s brother, a former pirate negotiator and a resident of the coastal pirate town of Harardhere, who said the boat left there late Thursday afternoon.
Earlier, U.S. Navy officials instructed the Maersk Alabama’s crew to steer their ship to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, about 50 hours away.
The defense official said no other vessels had been seen in the area and dismissed the idea that the second group of pirates would get near the scene. “That’s not going to happen,” the official said.
Somali pirates are holding more than a dozen other vessels ranging from massive container ships to luxury yachts and fishing trawlers, along with more than 200 hostages from France, Turkey and other nations – part of a thriving business that pumps tens of millions of dollars into the economy of northeastern Somalia.
Few, if any, hostages have been harmed, which analysts say helps fuel piracy. The incoming money has made relatively thriving pirate towns out of fishing villages such as Harardhere, which now have caterers that bring food to hostages and new construction.
Ken Menkhaus, an expert on Somalia and the piracy epidemic off its coast, said that despite the U.S. show of force, military action was improbable.
Maersk Line was probably negotiating a ransom with the pirates, as most companies do, he said. Menkhaus also said it was unlikely the pirates would free Phillips until they reached Somalia.
“If the pirates release him, then what happens to them?” said Menkhaus, a political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. “He’s their only leverage to get back to shore.”
Private shipping companies have generally preferred to pay ransom rather than to arm their ships and engage in gunfights with pirates on the high seas. Doing so, the logic goes, would create a more violent situation.
The companies are also motivated to keep their ships unarmed by a concern the pirates seem to understand: money.
Putting armed guards on ships could trigger an array of legal and financial trouble for shipping companies. They might not be granted access to certain ports, for instance, and arms on a ship sharply escalate the cost of insurance. Paying ransom – a total of about $150 million for shipping companies last year – is still cheaper than insuring a heavily armed ship.
“For now, this is a sustainable business for the pirates,” Menkhaus said. “Everyone’s doing a cost-benefit analysis.”
The pirate business model usually involves hauling the crew or passengers of a seized ship back to Somalia. The pirates’ current predicament – stranded in a lifeboat and staring at the hull of a U.S. destroyer – is unusual.