Pirates Hunt American Ships, But Latest Attack Foiled

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

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.

Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, said pirate attacks this year had risen to nearly 80, with at least 19 ships hijacked and more than 300 crew members still in pirates' hands. Each boat carries the potential of a million-dollar ransom.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday the United States can't end Somali piracy by itself and noted that 16 nations have warships in the region, which is roughly four times the size of Texas.

When Mullen was asked whether the United States had considered attacking the pirate strongholds in Somalia, the admiral told ABC's "Good Morning America": "I've asked, and we've been doing this. We've initiated a review on the Joint Staff to look broadly and widely and deeply at the overall strategy."

One problem in taking on pirates is what to do with them once they are arrested, Mullen said. There is a deal with Kenya to try pirates in court there, but so far, no pirates have been put on trial.

It's not yet clear what France intends to do with the pirates it captured today.

The United States is holding the lone survivor of the four pirates who took Phillips hostage and is trying to decide how to handle his legal case.

Harry Humphries, a former Navy Seal who is the founder of the Global Security Group Inc., said taking on piracy is too big a job for the United States to handle alone.

"We're in a bad situation if we're going to be given the mission of counterpiracy around the world," he told ABCNews.com. "We've got to get serious as an international community."

Humphries said Somali piracy is a very lucrative business run by clans in the Puntland region of Somalia. The clan leaders send out their teenagers to hijack ships, and the leaders keep most of the profits.

"If we start shooting these kids at sea, make it more difficult to get the vessels [it won't stop anything]," he said. "Until we go in there and take out the leadership, it's going to continue."

"The U.N. made it legal to go after pirates last year and to go into Somalia. Until that's done, this thing is going to continue," Humphries said.

American Crew Says Don't Forget Other Pirate Hostages

The crew of the Maersk Alabama is expected to land Wednesday night at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, a spokesman for the Maersk shipping line said.

One person waiting eagerly is Heather Giardinelli, the fiance of crew member John Cronin, and their two daughters, Sarah and Annie.

Giardinelli, however, said there were two things that Cronin wanted her to make clear to people. First, that the crew didn't have to retake its ship from pirates because the crew never surrendered the ship to the pirates, she said.

"I know that it's important to the crew that people know that," Giardinelli said.

"And also that there's 200 other hostages being held, other seamen, with 200 families that have endured what we've endured," she said. "And that can't be allowed to continue."

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