Page last updated at 16:47 GMT, Friday, 10 April 2009 17:47 UK

Captain 'tried to escape pirates'

Capt Richard Phillips
Capt Phillips was reportedly recaptured having jumped overboard

The US captain taken hostage by Somali pirates managed to jump off their lifeboat overnight but was recaptured, according to US media reports.

The escape attempt by Capt Richard Phillips was witnessed by a US navy ship nearby but happened too fast for it to come to his aid, NBC News says.

He was captured after a struggle on his ship, Maersk Alabama.

Meanwhile, one hostage and two pirates aboard a captured French yacht died during a rescue operation by troops.

Four other members of the crew on board the vessel were rescued, a statement issued by the French presidency said.

Reports of the French operation came as the US navy continued bolstering its forces in the area to combat the pirate captors.

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

Andrew Mwangura, of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme, told the BBC at least 18 vessels were now being held in Somali waters, with at least 267 crew members held hostage.

Ukrainian ship MV Faina seized on 25 September 2008, held until 5 February 2009
Saudi tanker Sirius Star held for two months from November 2008; a $3m ransom was negotiated
At least 15 pirate attacks reported to International Maritime Bureau during March 2009
The 32,500-tonne Malaspina Castle, UK-owned but operated by Italians, seized on 6 April 2009.

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.

The Maersk Alabama is reportedly sailing for the Kenyan port of Mombasa under armed guard.

Gen David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, said reinforcements would arrive within 48 hours, adding that a warship was already very close to the lifeboat.

But other hijacked ships with hostages aboard are also reported to be nearing the area to support the pirates on the lifeboat.

Top priority

There has been rising concern over the fate of Capt Phillips.

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

BBC map

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.

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.

FBI experts are helping negotiate his release.

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.

Pirate reinforcement

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.

File photo of the USS Bainbridge
The USS Bainbridge remains close to the scene of the stand-off

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

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.

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

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).

Efforts to stop the pirates have so far had only limited success, with international naval patrols struggling to cover the vast areas of ocean where pirates operate.

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

In what may prove an important test case, Kenyan officials are currently seeking to try seven pirates captured by US forces in February, the Wall Street Journal reports.

It has previously proved difficult to prove national jurisdiction because pirate attacks usually take place in international waters.

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