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April 8, 2009

American crew retakes ship from pirates

POLITICS - The American crew of a hijacked U.S.-flagged ship (the Maersk Alabama) retook control of their vessel from Somali pirates today around noon Eastern time but the captain was still being held hostage, according to Pentagon officials and a member of the crew.

It was the first time in over 200 years that an American ship had been captured by pirates. But it was relatively short lived thanks to quick-thinking Americans.

The 20-member crew had managed to seize one pirate and then successfully negotiate their own release and retook the ship from their pirate captors.

The pirates escaped in a lifeboat, but are still holding the ship's American captain hostage. Yesterday the Somali pirates who seized had seized the ship far off the Horn of Africa. The ship was carrying emergency food relief to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was hijacked.

United States President Barack Obama is following the situation closely, says foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough.

The Maersk Alabama was the sixth vessel seized within a week, a rise that analysts attribute to a new strategy by Somali pirates who are operating far from the warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden.

One U.S. official, citing a readout from an interagency conference call, said: "Multiple reliable sources are now reporting that the Maersk Alabama is now under control of the U.S. crew. The crew reportedly has one pirate in custody. The status of others is unclear, they are believed to be in the water."

He said the company received a call around 10:30 a.m. EDT from the crew that indicated the crewmen were safe. But the call got cut off, and the company could not ask any more questions.

Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the United States navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said that it was the first pirate attack "involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory."

Somali pirates are trained fighters who frequently dress in military fatigues and use speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers (bought from either American, Chinese or Russian weapons dealers) and various types of grenades. Far out to sea, their speedboats operate from larger mother ships.

The closest U.S. military ship at the time of the hijacking was 555 kilometres away.

It is very unusual for an international ship to be U.S.-flagged and carry a U.S. crew. Although about 95 per cent of international ships carry foreign flags because of the lower cost and other factors, he said, ships that are operated by or for the U.S. government – such a food aid ships like Maersk Alabama – have to carry U.S. flags, and therefore, employ a crew of U.S. citizens.

There are fewer than 200 U.S.-flagged vessels operating in international waters.

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