Somali Pirates Foil Escape, Threaten to Kill American Captain

French free hijacked yacht, but one hostage dies in raid.

April 10, 2009, 7:40 AM

April 10, 2009 — -- Somali pirates recaptured an American captain who tried a daring escape from their lifeboat during the night and then threatened to kill him if the U.S. Navy attempted to rescue him.

The pirates, marooned on a small boat in the Indian Ocean and stalked by a U.S. warship, demanded a ransom today for the safe release of Capt. Richard Phillips.

Phillips, the captain of the freighter Maersk Alabama that was hijacked by pirates and then retaken by his American crew, tried single-handedly to end the standoff during the night.

He and four pirates have been bobbing in the water for three days. The boat can hold 76 people, so there is room for them to move around, at times.

Around midnight, Phillips leaped off and began swimming for freedom, officials told ABC News. The U.S. destroyer Bainbridge is anchored a few hundred yards away.

Almost immediately, a pirate jumped in after Phillips and dragged him back to the boat, officials said. Defense officials said one of the pirates fired his automatic weapon during Phillips' escape attempt, but it wasn't clear whether it was fired towards Phillips or into the air, officials told the Associated Press.

The entire drama was captured by a drone flying overhead that sent back live color video to the Bainbridge, officials said.

Once recaptured, Phillips was back with four pirates in the 28-foot lifeboat. The pirates, out of gas but armed with AK-47 rifles, insisted on taking Phillips back to Somalia to hold him for ransom. They are about 300 miles from shore.

There's been no sight of Phillips since he was taken back on the boat, but the Navy has attempted contact. Aided by FBI negotiators, Bainbridge's commander called the pirates at least once via radio. But, when he asked the pirates to put Phillips on the phone, they refused.

Hours after Phillips' failed escape, the pirates' leader in Somalia let it be known that they want a ransom for Phillips and that they will kill him if the Navy uses force against them.

Former FBI agent and ABC News consultant Brad Garrett said that when it comes to hostage negotiations, patience is key.

"Keep in mind that in most hostage barricade situations, time tends to be on your side because you can gain more intelligence," he told ABC News. "The problem is there are game changers, and game changers would be other people showing up."

Are 'Game Changers' on the Way?

In fact, both the pirates and the U.S. Navy are sending reinforcements around the lifeboat where Phillips is being held hostage.

The Bainbridge has been keeping an eye on the four pirates in recent days and has been joined by another U.S. warship, the Halyburton, which carries two helicopters. En route to the area is the U.S.S. Boxer, which carries about 20 helicopters and attack planes, and, according to a U.S. official, will move "within helicopter range."

The pirates also claim to be sending reinforcements, hijacked ships that use captured crews as human shields. One of the ships has hostages on board.

"The pirates have summoned assistance -- skiffs and mother ships are heading toward the area from the coast," a Nairobi-based diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, told the AP. "We knew they were gathering yesterday."

A U.S. official told ABC News Friday evening that the pirate reinforcement ships had not yet arrived, but the United States is tracking their movements from the sky.

"We know where they are," the official said.

The Navy's main objective will be to stop the pirates' lifeboat from linking up with the mother ships, which is a formidable challenge since the Navy vessels do not maneuver easily, and they want to avoid using force.

A Somali who helped negotiate a ransom last year for a Ukranian freighter loaded with Russian tanks and other weapons told the AP that the strategy for the lifeboat is being handled ashore. They want to be able to bring Phillips to Somalia and then negotiate his ransom, the Somali negotiator told the AP.

A Somali pirate identified as Mohamed Samaw in the pirate stronghold in central Eyl told the AP that among the ships heading to their colleagues' rescue was a Taiwanese fishing vessel seized Monday and the German cargo ship Hansa Stavanger, seized earlier this month.

"They had asked us for reinforcement, and we have already sent a good number of well-equipped colleagues, who were holding a German cargo ship," said another pirate who asked that only his first name, Badow, be used to protect him from reprisals.

"We are not intending to harm the captain, so that we hope our colleagues would not be harmed as long as they hold him," Badow said.

Garrett told ABC News that it's quite possible that the pirates chew Khat, an addictive stimulant popular in east Africa. With the withdrawal symptoms come irritability, restlessness and anxiety, which can complicate negotiations.

French Free Hijacked Yacht, One Hostage Dead

As American forces continued their standoff, French forces assaulted other Somali pirates who had hijacked a yacht called Tanit on Saturday with two French couples and a 3-year-old boy aboard.

The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who gave the order for the attack, said that one hostage was killed in the raid along with two pirates. The child was unharmed, but it was unclear who fired the shot that killed the boy's father, French officials said.

The three pirates who were captured will be brought to France to await trial.

Negotiators repeatedly offered the pirates ransom, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said during a press conference, but the pirates rejected it. Missing a loved one, the freed hostages are now safely on a French Navy ship headed towards Dijbouti.

The death of one French hostage points to the danger and volatility of rescue operations against pirates in Somali waters.

Elsewhere, a Norwegian chemical tanker, the Bow Asir, that was captured in late March was freed after pirates collected a $2 million ransom, Defense officials said.

Back in Phillips' hometown of Underhill, Vt., the captain's wife, Andrea, has helped put up yellow ribbons, but has remained silent about her husband's plight. She issued a statement today through the shipping Maersk thanking neighbors and the nation for its outpouring of support.

"We have felt the compassion of the world through your concern for Richard. My husband is a strong man and we will remain strong for him. We ask that you do the same," Mrs. Phillips said.

On Thursday, a neighbor indicated that Andrea Phillips was feeling the stress of the hostage drama.

"She's done very well under the circumstances, but right now she's just under enormous strain," said neighbor Michael Willard. He said Andrea Phillips was "overwhelmed" and "upset enough about her husband and his situation."

After reports emerged today about Phillips' daring escape attempt, his sister-in-law Gina Coggio told ABC News, "The family is not making any comment."

High-Seas Drama: The Standoff Begins

The high-seas drama settled into a standoff after the pirates boarded the container ship Maersk Alabama Wednesday while firing AK-47 assault rifles, but were forced off the ship a short time later by the unarmed 20-member American crew who captured one of the pirates.

Phillips apparently prevented a bloody counterattack by the pirates by offering himself as a hostage. A prisoner exchange was arranged, but the pirates didn't keep their part of the bargain and refused to let the captain go free.

Gina Coggio told "Good Morning America" today that she believes Phillips tried to save his crew from any pirate gunfire by volunteering to be their hostage.

"What I understand is he offered himself as the hostage to keep the rest of the crew safe," Coggio told "GMA." "That is what he would do, that's just who he is, and his responsibility as the captain."

Another sister-in-law, Lea Coggio, agreed. "That's my brother-in-law, thinking of his crew, ship and cargo as well. That's Richard."

Murphy's mother, Marianne Murphy, told ABC News she was proud of her rough and tumble son for taking on the pirates.

"All those GI Joe dolls I bought him paid off," Marianne Murphy said.

Lea Coggio described Phillips, a former Boston cabbie, as a lovable daredevil.

"He liked going one-way streets the wrong way," Coggio said. "He's fun to be around, easygoing, lovable guy. ... There'll be a good story to tell when he gets through this, but on board it's serious business," she said.

Capt. Joseph Murphy, the father of Philips' second-in-command on the Alabama, teaches maritime cadets about piracy at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

"Capt. Phillips will survive, he'll be fine," Murphy told "GMA." "The pirates put themselves in a tenuous situation. They have to negotiate."

In an interview last month, Shane Murphy talked about the danger faced by cargo ships from pirates.

"All the vessels transiting the areas are on heightened watch capabilities. Everyone is prepared. They are putting up as much of a defense as they can," he said. "There is no telling when or where the attacks are going to happen and the amount of vessels that transit the area, it is impossible to patrol them all. ... The difference with the Somali pirates is they are more just armed thugs or bandits and they are ruled by the law of the gun in that country now."

Fifth Fleet on Pirate Patrol

The U.S. Fifth Fleet heads an international naval task force to deter piracy off the coast of Somalia. The European Union and NATO also have naval task forces in the area to combat pirates. Just Tuesday, they issued a new warning to mariners in the region about increased pirate activity.

Mwangura said the attack on the Maersk Alabama demonstrates the change in the pirates' tactics by attacking ships away from the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean where most of the Navy task force is concentrated. The pirates are now hunting in the Indian Ocean east and south-east of the Somali and Kenyan coastline.

Maersk Alabama was the sixth ship to be taken hostage in five days, and five of them have been captured in the last 48 hours.

At least three have been hijacked near the Seychelles Islands, some 400 miles south of the Somali coastline, and well out of the range of the Gulf of Aden where the Navy is patrolling.

A U.S. Defense Department official said one reason there has been a sudden increase in the number of seizures is because the waters off of Africa's east coast have become calmer following an extended period of choppy waters.

But Middleton thought the sudden jump in pirate activity is due to a change in their strategy.

"The weather is definitely a factor, but I don't think the main one," Middleton said. "It seems the pirates would be operating from a mother ship far out at sea away from the military presence, further out in the Indian Ocean where there is a freer environment for them to operate in."

Somali pirates, armed with rocket propelled grenades and plying the seas in small, fast craft, have thrived in recent years in the chaos of a country with no working government and have collected tens of millions of dollars in ransom from shipping companies for the safe return of the their vessels and crews.

The pirate attacks have surged in recent months, however, and gained global attention after pirates grabbed a ship loaded with Russian tanks, rocket propelled grenades and other assault-type weapons.

That attack was followed by the seizure of a Saudi supertanker laden with millions of dollars worth of crude oil.

Both ships were eventually freed after lengthy negotiations and air drops of ransoms that contained millions of dollars in cash.

ABC News' Kirit Radia, Jason Ryan and Anne Marie Dorning contributed to this report.