CIA and FBI officials were taking no chances with the Alabama’s remaining 19-man US crew, and demanded that port authorities deploy shipping containers to create a physical barrier preventing anyone from approaching the container ship. Media from all over the world descended on East Africa’s main port as interest remains high in the dramatic details of the first pirate attack on a US vessel in 200 years. The ship, carrying food aid for East Africa, was briefly taken over by Somali attackers on Wednesday before the crew fought back. In the confusion Captain Phillips was taken hostage, with the pirates retreating on one of the Alabama’s lifeboats.
Less than an hour before the ship was due to arrive in Mombasa, metal containers were stacked into a high barricade, while US officials said there would be no access to the American seamen until they had been debriefed by security officials.
Out at sea on the Indian Ocean, a squadron of US warships prevented local reinforcements from reaching the Somali pirates and Captain Phillips. Another detachment of pirates made a failed attempt to reach the lifeboat in a German-flagged container ship hijacked last month.
“We have come back to Harardheere coast. We could not locate the lifeboat,” one pirate on the German ship, who identified himself as Suleiman, told Reuters.
As the Indian Ocean stand-off threatened to enter its fifth day, frantic efforts were under way on the Somali mainland to avert a repeat of the bungled raid which earlier saw French forces storm a hijacked yacht. Somali elders said to represent the community of the four pirates who are holding Captain Phillips were determined to reach the scene “without any guns or ransom” to assist in reaching a negotiated settlement.
In Paris, authorities were forced to admit that it “could have been a French bullet” that killed Florent Lemaçon, whose yacht had been hijacked last weekend by Somali pirates while it was en route to Zanzibar. The dead man’s wife and three-year-old son were among four hostages who were rescued when French commandos stormed the yacht.
France’s Foreign Minister, Hervé Morin, said: “There will be, of course, a judicial inquiry; therefore, there will be an autopsy. We cannot, of course, exclude that during the exchange of fire between the pirates and our commandos, the shot [that killed Mr Lemaçon]was French.”
Pirates have been involved in three failed attempts to board ships in the Gulf of Aden since Friday. In each case they were repelled with the help of fire hoses directed at them from commercial vessels. The same tactic was tried and failed during the five-hour pursuit of the Maersk Alabama last week. Then, yesterday, came the first pirate success of the day, with the seizure of a US-owned tugboat with 16 crew, 10 of them Italian.
There are now about 280 seamen being held hostage by Somali pirates. More than one-third of them come from the Philippines, and officials in Manila were yesterday appealing for their countrymen not to be forgotten in the rush to save one American sailor.