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Somali Pirates Thwart U.S. Captain’s Escape Attempt

April 10, 2009 at 6:05 PM EDT
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American ship Capt. Richard Phillips tried to swim away from his Somali captors Friday but was quickly recaptured, as another pirate ship and a U.S. warship headed to the scene about 200 miles off the coast of Somalia. A reporter discusses the developments.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story: There was more drama on the high seas off Africa today in a series of hostage standoffs with Somali pirates. American Captain Richard Phillips tried to escape his captors, but was recaptured, as U.S. defense officials watched from a nearby destroyer.

Officials told the Associated Press the USS Boxer, the flagship for a multination anti-piracy task force, will be nearby soon.

And there were reports that the pirates asked for backup from other hijacked ships in the region.

The French navy rescued four hostages on a yacht, but one was killed in the operation.

And a Norwegian ship was released after pirates were paid a ransom.

Ray Suarez talked to Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times earlier today via satellite phone from East Africa.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey, what do we know at this hour about the attempted escape of the captain of the Maersk Alabama?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, New York Times: The details are very fuzzy, but what we’ve been told is the captain jumped overboard, tried to swim to a nearby naval ship, and then the pirates jumped in after him and dragged him back to the lifeboat. And I just saw a report in the last few minutes that said that a U.S. aircraft had flown over the lifeboat and that the captain was in it and appeared to be OK.

RAY SUAREZ: Have the pirates holding the captain made a formal ransom demand?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: We don’t really know. There have been some reports that somebody from a town called Xarardheere, which is on the Somalia coast and is known as a notorious pirate den, that somebody from there had said they want $2 million to free the captain.

But there are other reports that I’ve been hearing that this incident may not even be connected to the pirates in Xarardheere. It may be another group of pirates farther up the coast, so it’s not really clear who’s holding the captain and what they want.

Pirates rarely harm hostages

RAY SUAREZ: Once you get to the point where you're talking about ransom and terms for release, I guess you have to know what you're adversary is capable of. Have pirates killed hostages in the past?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: There have been very few cases where pirates have harmed hostages. This is all about the money.

And I've interviewed a number of pirates, and they've told me that straightforwardly. They said, you know, this isn't about politics, this isn't about religion, this isn't about any beef that we have with anybody out there. This is about money. This is a way to earn income in a state where the economy is in complete tatters.

RAY SUAREZ: Just today, we have two competing examples of how takeovers end. The French released word they stormed a vessel that had been taken off the East African coast, killed some of the pirates, lost one of their own nationals who had been held on board.

And then comes a story from Norway, that the Norwegian freighter MV Bow-Asir was freed after paying a ransom. Once a government gets involved, is there a different approach to this from when it's just the pirates and the shipping company?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, the French have taken the hardest line on the pirates. And they've organized a number of sting operations and assaults on ships that the pirates have been holding.

They've been successful in most cases. They've surprised the pirates. I even heard some stories from sources of mine that they used submersible boats to go underneath these ships in captivity and then pop up with these French commandos, and take the pirates totally by surprise, and kill a couple of them, arrest a couple, and free the crews.

So the French really are not playing around with this at all. Most other countries are reluctant to go down that road.

Pirates have diverse backrounds

RAY SUAREZ: You've mentioned that you've talked to either pirates or people who are connected to them. Are they a network? Are there cells that are essentially freelance operations or independent gangs? Is there some sort of overall intelligence running these operations?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: It's very murky. I think it's a mix. I think there are some people who are freelance opportunists, who are fisherman that decided they could make a lot more money by grabbing a machine gun and putting down their fishing rod.

But there are other pirates that are part of a wired criminal network with financiers in different places as far away as London, the Arab world, Kenya. So it's a mix.

I mean, from what I understand, there are business interests that are fronting money for the pirates to buy weapons and equipment, like GPS systems and boats and engines, and they give them this money to go take ships. And then once the ship is taken, then these businessmen get involved through these mediators. And then the mediators come up with a settlement, and then it's shared by all the parties.

So there are some deeply vested criminal interests in this. And that's how Somalia has worked. That's Warlord Culture 101, is that you would have, you know, gunmen on the street and teenage kids with AK-47s and, you know, technicals, that Somali invention of a pickup truck with big guns riveted on the back.

That's just what you see on the surface. But behind that are pretty sophisticated, pretty intelligent people that have figured out a way to exploit the anarchic system to make money, and make a lot of money.

Many ships now being held

RAY SUAREZ: Over the last several days, the capture of the Maersk Alabama has certainly captured America's attention. But right now are they many other ongoing hostage or ship-capture situations involving other countries still waiting to be settled?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: There are. There are more than a dozen ships right now that are being held by pirates, with something like 250 to 300 crew members being held hostage.

And I talked to one shipping expert in London. And he said, "This is crazy. Nowhere else in the world would you allow this to happen." He said that you could see on Google Earth images of these ships anchored off the coast of Somalia that are being held by these pirates. People know exactly where they are, they know who's holding them, but it continues.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey, thanks a lot.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: No problem. Glad to help.