Crew retake ship siezed by pirates

WASHINGTON (AP) — The crew of a U.S.-flagged ship seized by pirates off Somalia has retaken the vessel, American officials said Wednesday, but a person contacted aboard the ship said the pirates still held the captain.

The person aboard the Maersk Alabama, reached by The Associated Press by satellite phone about 12:30 p.m. EDT, said crew members had indeed retaken control of the ship and were holding one of the pirates. But the person said the captain was being held hostage by remaining pirates in a lifeboat and negotiations were under way seeking his release.

The man did not identify himself in the brief phone conversation. The company that owns the boat says the entire 20-member crew are Americans.

U.S. officials said details were still murky and declined to confirm the report.

Earlier, Capt. Joseph Murphy, an instructor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, told The Associated Press that he was called by the Department of Defense and told the crew, including his son Shane, the second in command on the ship, had regained control.

The company that owns the ship was cautious in its comments.

“Speculation is a dangerous thing when you’re in a fluid environment. I will not confirm that the crew has overtaken this ship,” Maersk Line Ltd. CEO John Reinhart said at a news conference in Norfolk, Va.

“The crew member called to say, ‘We are safe.’ They did not say they had taken over the vessel. They did not say the pirates are off the vessel,” Reinhart said.

The original taking of the cargo ship, which was captured by pirates near the coast of Somalia, apparently was the first such piracy incident involving U.S. citizens in 200 years. In December 2008, Somali pirates chased and shot at a U.S. cruise ship with more than 1,000 people on board but failed to hijack the vessel.

U.S. officials, citing an interagency conference call, said “multiple reliable sources” were reporting the ship was under control of the U.S. crew. One pirate was reported in custody and the others were believed to be in the water.

The incident posed troubling questions for the young Obama administration in an era of terrorist threats.

President Barack Obama’s chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said the White House was assessing a course of action. “Our top priority is the personal safety of the crew members on board,” he said.

Obama was notified of the situation as he was flying back to the nation’s capital from Baghdad and was following it closely, said foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough.

Joseph Murphy, an instructor at a maritime academy, told the Cape Cod newspaper that his son was well aware of the threat of pirates in the area and, while home on a visit only a few weeks ago, had talked with his class about the risk. “He knows the potential danger and he talked with my students about that,” Murphy said. “He connected right away with the students.”

It was the sixth vessel seized within a week in the dangerous region around Africa, said Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. She also said that it was the first pirate attack “involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory.”

Retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was in charge of the USS Cole destroyer when it was attacked by suicide bombers in 2000, said, “Although the United States and other nations are working in a loose coalition to prevent piracy, the dwindling number of ships in our Navy amplifies the impact of this menace.”

Lippold is now a senior military fellow at Military Families United, an advocacy organization.

The crew first reported being under attack, then said that pirates had already boarded the ship, according to “talking points” prepared by the U.S. government for briefing reporters about the situation.

The hijacking came one day after international maritime officials issued a warning on the area.

Following a series of attacks off the eastern coast of Somalia, the Combined Maritime Forces issued an advisory Wednesday highlighting several recent attacks that occurred hundreds of miles off the Somali coast and stating that merchant mariners should be increasingly vigilant when operating in those waters.

“While the majority of attacks during 2008 and early 2009 took place in the Gulf of Aden, these recent attacks off the eastern coast of Somalia are not unprecedented,” the advisory provided by Navy officials in Washington said. “An attack on the large crude tanker Sirius Star in November 2008 occurred more than 450 nautical miles off the southeast coast of Somalia.”

The advisory said the “scope and magnitude of problem cannot be understated.”

The nearest ship from the international coalition working against pirates in the region was hundreds of miles away from the Maersk Alabama.

Associated Press reporters Matthew Lee, Anne Gearan, Ben Feller and Jesse Holland contributed to this story.

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