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Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Friday, 10 April 2009 12:28 UK

US navy bears down on pirate boat

Capt Richard Phillips
The ship's owners say securing Capt Phillips' release is their priority

US military chiefs are bolstering their forces around the Horn of Africa to help tackle Somali pirates holding a US captain hostage in a drifting lifeboat.

Gen David Petraeus said reinforcements would arrive within 48 hours, adding that a warship was near the lifeboat.

Other hijacked ships with hostages are reported to be nearing the boat.

Capt Richard Phillips was captured in a struggle on his ship, Maersk Alabama. Pirates seized the ship but the crew fought them off.

FBI experts are helping negotiate his release.

The vessel has now set sail for the Kenyan port of Mombasa under armed guard.

'Criminals'

The announcement of reinforcements came amid rising concern over the fate of Capt Phillips.

Capt Phillips' sister-in-law Lea Coggino says he is "a smart guy who is in control"

"The safe return of the captain is the top priority," US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Washington.

The cruise-missile carrying USS Bainbridge was sent to the scene in a move analysts say will strengthen the hand of US negotiators.

The destroyer is shadowing the lifeboat, and its officers are talking to the pirates, as well as giving them food and batteries for a two-way radio.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the attackers as "nothing more than criminals".

"We are bringing to bear a number of our assets, including naval and FBI, in order to resolve the hostage situation and bring the pirates to justice," she said.

Gen Petraeus said the additional US forces would "ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days".

There are thought to be four pirates with Capt Phillips in the lifeboat, which has reportedly run out of fuel, and it is not yet clear what they are demanding.

Capt Phillips has a radio and contacted the navy and crew of his ship to say he was unharmed, the Maersk shipping company said in a statement.

Pirate reinforcement

Other Somali pirates are reportedly sending support to those aboard the lifeboat.

Mohamed Samaw, a Somali who claimed to have a "share" in a British ship hijacked this week, told AP news agency two hijacked ships had left the pirate stronghold of Eyl on Wednesday afternoon.

He said a further two seized vessels were also sailing towards the lifeboat.

Two of the ships have some 54 hostages aboard, from China, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia and Taiwan.

A man identified as a pirate named Badow told AP: "They had asked us for reinforcement and we have already sent a good number of well-equipped colleagues, who were holding a German cargo ship."

He said there was no intention of harming the captain, as long as the pirates holding him were not hurt.

"All we need, first, is a safe route to escape with the captain, and then (negotiate) ransom later," he said.

Destabilisation concern

Analysts have said negotiations could be lengthy, with the pirates likely to want a hefty ransom for the captain as well as compensation for a boat that was wrecked in the attack.

BBC map

The cargo ship, carrying food aid destined for Somalia and Uganda, was seized about 500km (311 miles) off Somalia's coast in the early hours of Wednesday.

After a long struggle, the crew members regained control of the ship.

It is thought that Capt Phillips offered himself as a hostage in order to save his crew.

Zoya Quinn, wife of the ship's second officer, told the Associated Press that Capt Phillips had told the crew to lock themselves in a room and that the pirates, who were "desperate", searched all over the ship for them.

The crew held a wounded pirate for about 12 hours, dressing his wounds "because he was bleeding all over the ship", she said, after communication with her husband Ken by phone and e-mail.

Somalia has been without an effective government since 1991, fuelling the lawlessness which has allowed the pirates to thrive.

Pirates typically hold the ships and crews until large ransoms are paid by the shipping companies - last year the firms handed over about $80m (£54m).

After a lull earlier this year, the Maersk Alabama was the sixth ship hijacked off Somalia in the past week.

The UN's Somalia envoy, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, told Reuters that piracy was threatening to destabilise the region.



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