Pirates Hunt American Ships, But Latest Attack Foiled

French warship stalks and captures a pirate mother ship in Indian Ocean.

ByABC News
April 14, 2009, 7:23 AM

April 15, 2009— -- A second U.S. freighter foiled an attack by Somali pirates who fired rocket propelled grenades at it, and a French warship stalked and captured a pirate "mother ship" today, officials said.

The U.S. freighter Liberty Sun, which is carrying food aid for Care and the World Food Program, successfully evaded the pirates' attack off the coast of Somalia, U.S. officials told ABC News station WLS in Chicago. The ship is said to be heading to its port destination of Mombasa, Kenya.

It was the first attack on an American ship since the U.S. Navy shot and killed three pirates who had captured American freighter captain Richard Phillips. Their deaths had angered pirates in Somalia and prompted Vice Admiral Bill Gortney to say it "could escalate violence in this part of the world."

One of the pirates whose gang attacked the Liberty Sun told the Associated Press today that his group was specifically targeting American ships and sailors.

"We will seek out the Americans and if we capture them we will slaughter them," said a 25-year-old pirate based in the Somali port of Harardhere who gave only his first name, Ismail.

"We will target their ships because we know their flags. Last night, an American-flagged ship escaped us by a whisker. We have showered them with rocket-propelled grenades," Ismail told the AP.

Hours after the latest attack and threats, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined steps the administration will take to combat piracy.

Clinton called for international efforts to help Somalia crack down on piracy, for ships to avoid pirates, and to secure the release of about 300 hostages.

She also proposed freezing the assets of pirates, although they work from remote fishing villages, often use stolen ships, and their multi-million dollar ransoms are bags of cash that are air dropped to them.

Clinton said, however, "We have noticed that the pirates are buying more and more sophisticated equipment. They're buying faster and more capable vessels. They are clearly using their ransom money for their benefit, both personally and on behalf of their piracy. And we think we can begin to try and track and prevent that from happening."

Since Phillips' rescue, pirate activity has surged off the Somali coast with four ships captured in rapid succession. At least two other ships, a freighter named the Safmarine Asia and the Liberty Sun, were able to escape the pirates.

A pirate mother ship, which carries attack skiffs and pirate crews deep into the ocean in search of vulnerable vessels, was spotted Tuesday by a French helicopter that had intervened to help disrupt the attack on the Safmarine Asia, the French Defense Ministry said.

The chopper and the French warship Nivose tracked the ship and captured it early this morning. Eleven pirates are now in custody, the French Defense Ministry said.

Last week, French commandos recovered a hijacked yacht and killed several pirates and captured two. One of the pirates' hostages died in the assault.

The destroyer Bainbridge got a distress call Tuesday night from the Liberty Sun while the destroyer was carrying Phillips to Mombasa for a reunion with his crew. Instead, it was diverted to help the Liberty Sun.

The pirates fired rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons at the Liberty Sun, which sustained damage, according to a statement from the Liberty Shipping Company.

No one was injured in the attack, but the ship suffered minor damage.

ABC has obtained the e-mails sent by Liberty Sun crew member Thomas Urbik to his family as his ship as Somali pirates attacked his ship.

During the siege, in an e-mail titled "I love you all," Urbik writes: "We are under attack by pirates, we are being hit by rockets. Also bullets... We are barricaded in the engine room and so far no one is hurt. A rocket penetrated the bulkhead but the hole is small. Small fire too but put out... Navy is on the way and helos and ships are coming. I'll try to send you another message soon. got to go now. I love you mom and dad and all my brothers and family."

Ninety minutes later, Urbik wrote: "The navy has showed up in full force and we are now under military escort.. all is well. I love you all and thank you for the prayers. -Tom."

America's top military commander told ABC News the United States is reviewing its options, including whether to go into pirate villages.