Pirates sailed a hijacked German freighter toward a lifeboat off Somalia early on Saturday to help four comrades holding an American ship captain hostage under the gaze of a US destroyer.
Separately, French special forces stormed a yacht held by pirates elsewhere in the lawless stretch of the Indian Ocean in an assault that killed one hostage, but freed four others. Two pirates were killed and three were captured.
More US warships have been sent toward the lifeboat drifting in international waters off Somalia, where pirates have been holding American captain Richard Phillips since an attempt to hijack his ship, the 17,000-tonne, Danish-owned Maersk Alabama, on Wednesday.
Phillips apparently volunteered to get in the lifeboat with the pirates in exchange for the safety of his crew, who regained control of the ship, which is carrying food relief to Kenya.
Phillips leapt into the sea during the night and tried to swim away but at least one pirate quickly followed and he was hauled back onto the lifeboat, a US official said. "He didn't get very far," the official told Reuters.
Close by, the destroyer USS Bainbridge launched drones that monitored the incident and kept radio contact with the pirates.
The Bainbridge, which is leading negotiations for Philips' release, is seeking a peaceful outcome to the standoff with the assistance of FBI experts, a US official said. The pirate gang holding Phillips remained defiant despite the arrival of US and other naval ships in the area.
"We are not afraid of the Americans," one of the pirates told Reuters by satellite phone. "We will defend ourselves if attacked."
The pirates are demanding $2 million for his release and a guarantee of their own safety, a pirate source said. The source told Reuters from the Somali fishing port of Haradheere that another group who hijacked the 20,000-tonne German container vessel, the Hansa Stavanger, a week ago were heading to the scene of the standoff.
"Knowing that the Americans will not destroy this German ship and its foreign crew, they hope they can meet their friends on the lifeboat," said the pirate, who has given reliable information in the past but asked not to be named.
The German ship was seized off south Somalia between Kenya and the Seychelles and has a crew of 24. Officials in Washington confirmed that reinforcements were nearby. The frigate USS Halyburton, equipped with guided missiles and helicopters, and a German frigate had arrived in the area of the standoff, they said.
The USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, was also heading for the lifeboat's general area, mainly in case its medical facilities were required.
In France, the government stood by its raid to free the sailing boat, which was hijacked en route to Zanzibar last weekend with two couples and a 3-year-old child aboard.
"During the operation, a hostage sadly died," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office. But it said the president "confirms France's determination not to give into blackmail and to defeat the pirates."
Phillips is one of about 270 hostages being held by Somali pirates preying on the busy sea-lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
Somalia has suffered 18 years of civil conflict since warlords overthrew former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and the international waters off the Horn of Africa have become some of the most dangerous in the world.
Last year there were 42 ship hijackings off Somalia, which disrupted shipping, delayed food aid to East Africa and raised insurance costs. Some cargo ships have been diverted to travel around South Africa instead of through the Suez Canal.
The hijackings brought a massive international response, with ships from the United States, Europe, China, Japan and others flocking to the region to protect the sea routes. Maritime groups say the likeliest outcome from the US hostage saga is a negotiated solution, possibly involving safe passage in exchange for the captive.
US Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus said the best outcome would be for the German ship to be allowed to pick up Phillips and his captors and take them to shore, and for a ransom to be paid for the American.
"It would mean no loss of life and no risk to the lives of the other hostages. And at the end of the day an insurance company would be out $2 million -- probably just $1 million after negotiations," Menkhaus said.