The US Navy summoned the FBI in crisis atmosphere Thursday for advice on how to rescue a cargo ship captain held hostage in the Indian Ocean by pirates who seized his vessel off the coast of Somalia.
At the same time, the shipping company Maersk demanded that Capt. Richard Phillips be returned and called his safety its No. 1 priority. The Obama administration, for its part, weighed options in an incident at sea that dramatized the limits of U.S. military power in international cops-and-robbers scenarios.
At the FBI, spokesman Richard Kolko described the bureau's hostage negotiating team as "fully engaged" with the military in strategizing ways to retrieve the ship's captain and secure the Maersk Alabama and its roughly 20-person U.S. crew. The FBI was summoned as the Pentagon substantially stepped up its monitoring of the hostage standoff, sending in P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and other equipment and securing video footage of the scene.
Defense Department officials would not say Thursday morning just how close the USS Bainbridge was to a small lifeboat where Phillips was being held near the Maersk Alabama. A Pentagon official said the lifeboat is not tethered to the cargo ship and "it's drifting." But one official, speaking on grounds of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the pirates "could see it with their eyes." Another official said there were several other vessels in the vicinity, but it was unclear whether any were the so-called "mother ship" that pirates use to drop them at hijacking sites. The pirates were still holding the 55-year-old Phillips, from Underhill, Vermont, after the American crew retook the ship Wednesday and the hostage-takers fled into the lifeboat. Hostage negotiators and military officials have been working around the clock to free Phillips.
In his statement, Kolko said: "FBI negotiators stationed at Quantico (Virginia) have been called by the Navy to assist with negotiations with the Somali pirates and are fully engaged in this matter."
In Norfolk, Virginia, home of the shipping company, spokesman Kevin Speers told reporters early Thursday that "the most recent contact" that Maersk had with the ship indicated that Phillips remained in the hands of the pirates.
"We share the concern about the well-being of the crew with the families," he said. "The safe return of the captain is our foremost priority. Everything we have done over the past day is meant to increase the chance of a peaceful outcome." Speers said the company is "grateful" for the assistance of the government and the military and said it is doing all it can to cooperate.
The ship-taking presented President Barack Obama with a tough new challenge just as he returned from his first European tour as president.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking to reporters at the outset of a meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and their Australian counterparts, said: "We're watching it very closely. Apparently, the lifeboat has run out of gas." Earlier, Clinton said: "We're deeply concerned and we're following it very closely. ... More generally, the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy."
The pirate-hostage drama was the first of its kind in modern history involving a U.S. crew.
"We have watched with alarm the increasing threat of piracy," said Denis McDonough, a senior foreign policy adviser at the White House. "The administration has an intense interest in the security of navigation."
The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships, including the cruiser USS Gettysburg, that had been patrolling in the region. But they were about 345 miles (555 kilometers) and several hours away when the Maersk Alabama was seized, officials said. The Obama administration has so far done no better than its predecessor to thwart the growing threat of piracy. Since January, pirates have staged 66 attacks, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There is too much area to cover and too many commercial vessels to protect for full-time patrols or escorts. U.S. legal authority is limited, even in the case of American hostages and a cargo of donated American food. And the pirates, emboldened by fat ransoms, have little reason to fear being caught.
"The military component here is always going to be marginal," said Peter Chalk, an expert on maritime national security at the private Rand Corp.
According to the Navy, it would take 61 ships to control the shipping route in the Gulf of Aden, which is just a fraction of the 1.1 million square miles (2.8 million sq. kilometers) where the pirates have operated. A U.S.-backed international anti-piracy coalition currently has 12 to 16 ships patrolling the region at any one time.
Along the Somali coastline, an area roughly as long as the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, pirate crews have successfully held commercial ships hostage for days or weeks until they are ransomed. In the past week, pressured by naval actions off Somalia, the pirates have shifted their operations farther out into the Indian Ocean, expanding the crisis.
Associated Press Military Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this report.