American crew members aboard a U.S.-flagged ship hijacked by Somali pirates Wednesday were able to regain control of the vessel, but a crew member is still being held hostage, FOX News confirms.
U.S. officials said American warships are steaming toward the hijack scene. U.S. Navy officials told FOX News Wednesday afternoon that its closest ship was 300 miles away, which would place it 15 hours from the vessel.
A defense official said the Maersk Alabama's captain is being held captive on board a lifeboat belonging to the ship, but a crew member would only say that a shipmate was being held, and would not confirm whether it was the ship's captain. Four pirates are in the lifeboat and according to the official there is no clear evidence that a pirate remains captive with the U.S. crew.
"We are able to confirm that the crew of the Maersk Alabama is now in control of the ship," said Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Maersk Lines Limited. "The armed hijackers who boarded this ship earlier today have departed, however they are currently holding one member of the ship's crew as a hostage. The other members of the crew are safe and no injuries have been reported."
Speaking on the ship's satellite phone, one of the 20 crew members said they had been taken hostage but managed to seize one pirate and then successfully negotiate their own release. He said negotiations are under way for the crew member's release.
"All the crew members are trained in security detail in how to deal with piracy," Maersk CEO John Reinhart told reporters. "As merchant vessels we do not carry arms. We have ways to push back, but we do not carry arms."
John Harris, CEO of HollowPoint Security Services, which specializes in maritime security, said that the crew's overtaking the pirates could help prevent future hijackings, especially since the military can't protect the entire high seas.
"Any time you can get intel from them, they can give you any kind of significant information, they more than likely will not, but anything we can get will always help us in the future," Harris told FOX News.
"Naval vessels ... can't be everywhere at one time, just like law enforcement," he said, noting that the U.S. Navy has been protecting the most vulnerable shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.
"If you saturate an area long enough in the shipping lanes, if you saturate it with war ships long enough, they venture out. In this case that's what they did. They want 350 miles out of the coast where no Naval vessels were present," he said.
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As for the boldness of the pirates taking a ship operating under a U.S. flag, Harris said pirates don't care which ship they grab.
"We have not seen it matters at all. This is a business to them. They are not intended on carrying what cargo we're carrying. All they want to do is see a dollar figure. They know if they catch a big ship, they get big money. All they want is ransom out of this. They are not worried about crew or cargo," Harris said.
Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman said earlier Wednesday he has "no information to suggest the 20 crew members of the Maersk Alabama have been harmed by the pirates."
During its one communication with the ship, Maersk was told the crew was safe, Reinhart said. He would not release the names of the crew members.
Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said that it was the first pirate attack "involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory."
Wednesday's incident was the first such hostage-taking involving U.S. citizens in 200 years. In December 2008, Somali pirates chased and shot at a U.S. cruise ship with more than 1,000 people on board but failed to hijack the vessel.
The top two commanders of the ship graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the Cape Cod Times reported Wednesday.
Andrea Phillips, the wife of Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt., said her husband has sailed in those waters "for quite some time" and a hijacking was perhaps "inevitable."
The Cape Cod Times reported his second in command, Capt. Shane Murphy, was also among the 20 Americans aboard the Maersk Alabama.
Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, says his son is a 2001 graduate who recently talked to a class about the dangers of pirates.
The newspaper reported the 33-year-old Murphy had phoned his mother to say he was safe.
The 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama was carrying emergency relief to Mombasa, Kenya, at the time it was hijacked, for the Copenhagen-based container shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk.
Robert A. Wood, Deputy State Department Spokesman, told reporters the ship was carrying "vegetable oil, corn soy blend and other basic food commodities bound for Africa."