NAIROBI, Kenya - The American captain held hostage by four Somali pirates made a desperate escape attempt Friday by trying to swim to freedom but was recaptured after they fired shots, and officials said other pirates were sailing to the scene in hijacked ships with other captives aboard.
A Somali in contact with a pirate leader said the captors want a ransom and are ready to kill the hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips, if attacked.
Also off Somalia, France's navy freed a sailboat seized last week by Somali pirates, but one of the hostages was killed along with two of the bandits. French officials said three pirates were taken into custody. It was not immediately clear where the operation occurred but it did not appear to be near the standoff involving the U.S. captain.
The U.S. was bolstering its force by dispatching other warships to the site off the Horn of Africa, where a U.S. destroyer shadowed the drifting lifeboat carrying Phillips. He was taken hostage in the pirates' failed effort to hijack the cargo ship Maersk Alabama on Wednesday.
The pirates' strategy is to link up with their colleagues, who are holding Russian, German, Filipino and other hostages, and get Phillips to lawless Somalia, where they could hide the hostage and make it difficult to stage a rescue, the Somali said. That would give the pirates more leverage and a stronger negotiating position to discuss a ransom. Anchoring near shore also means they could get to land quickly if attacked.
The Somali, who helped negotiate a ransom last year to pirates after they seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. He said he has talked with a pirate leader in Somalia who helped coordinate the failed effort to seize the Alabama.
He said the pirate leader had been in direct contact with the lifeboat via a satellite phone but lost contact after Phillips' captors threw the phone - and a two-way radio dropped to them by the U.S. Navy - into the ocean, fearing the Americans were somehow using the equipment to give instructions to the captain. They acted after Phillips' failed effort to escape.
Around midnight local time, Phillips jumped off the lifeboat and began swimming, according to Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the sensitive, unfolding operations.
One of the pirates then fired an automatic weapon, the officials said, although it was not clear if the shots were fired at Phillips or into the air, and he returned to the lifeboat.
The USS Bainbridge, which is several hundred yards away, has rescue helicopters and lifeboats but is keeping its distance, in part to stay out of the pirates' range of fire.
Its sailors were able to see Phillips moving around and talking after his return to the lifeboat, and the Defense Department officials think he is unharmed.
Negotiations had been taking place between the pirates and the captain of the Bainbridge, who was getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators, the officials said.
U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said U.S. warships also are headed to the area, more than 300 miles off Somalia's Indian Ocean coast.
"We want to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days," he said.
President Barack Obama, who is getting regular updates on the standoff, declined to answer questions about it Friday for a second straight day.
Mohamed Samaw, a resident of the pirate stronghold in Eyl, Somalia, who claims to have a "share" in a British-owned ship hijacked Monday, said four foreign vessels held by pirates are heading toward the lifeboat. A total of 54 hostages are on two of the ships - citizens of China, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia and Taiwan.
"The pirates have summoned assistance - skiffs and mother ships are heading towards the area from the coast," said a Nairobi-based diplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Samaw said two ships left Eyl on Wednesday. A third sailed from Haradhere, another pirate base in Somalia, and the fourth was a Taiwanese fishing vessel seized Monday that was already only 30 miles from the lifeboat.
He said the ships include the German cargo ship Hansa Stavanger, seized earlier this month. The ship's crew of 24 is made up of five Germans, three Russians, two Ukrainians, two Filipinos and 12 from Tuvalu.
Another man identified as a pirate by three different residents of Haradhere also said the captured German ship had been sent.
"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," said the man, who asked that only his first name, Badow, be used to protect him from reprisals.
"We are not intending to harm the captain, so that we hope our colleagues would not be harmed as long as they hold him," Badow said. "All we need, first, is a safe route to escape with the captain, and then (negotiate) ransom later."
Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent whose Virginia-based firm Clayton Consultants Inc. handles hostage negotiations, told The Associated Press that the presence of other hijacked vessels in the area "could complicate the negotiation strategy under way."
"We know for certain that they share information. We know they talk to each other. They're not stupid. They can be very smart," Cloonan said.
Phillips, 53, thwarted the takeover of the 17,000-ton U.S.-flagged Alabama by telling his crew of about 20 to lock themselves in a room, the crew told stateside relatives.
The crew later overpowered some of the pirates but Phillips surrendered himself to the bandits to safeguard his men, and the Somalis fled with him to an enclosed lifeboat, the relatives said.
Capt. James Staples, a classmate of Phillips at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said he was not surprised by the escape attempt.
"That just shows me that Richie's still ... strong, he's thinking, he's alert," Staples said. "He's going to take every opportunity he can to, to make the situation a lot better for himself and probably get home as quick as he can."
At Phillips' home in Underhill, Vt., family members nervously awaited word on his fate. Sister-in-law Lea Coggio said Thursday a representative of Maersk called to let Phillips' wife know that food and water had been delivered to the lifeboat.
"I think he's coping, knowing Richard," she said. "He's a smart guy, and he's in control. "
Officials at Maersk Line Ltd. offices in Norfolk, Va., did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment Friday.
The Alabama sailed away from the lifeboat Thursday, Maersk shipping line said, and a team of armed Navy SEALs is aboard, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
It was sailing toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa - its original destination - and was expected to arrive Saturday night, said Joseph Murphy, a professor at the maritime academy whose son, Shane Murphy, is second-in-command of the vessel.
Company spokesman Kevin Speers told AP Radio on Thursday the lifeboat carrying Phillips and the pirates was out of fuel and "dead in the water."
Most of the lifeboats are about 28 feet long and carry water and food for 34 people for 10 days, Joseph Murphy said.
The lifeboats are covered and Murphy, speaking after a briefing by the shipping company, said he suspects the pirates have closed the ports to avoid sniper fire.
Petraeus said the other warships would arrive shortly. U.S. officials said the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton was among them.
The show of force follows an increase in the number of attacks and the first on a U.S.-flagged ship. The vessels strengthen surveillance of the area and may dissuade pirates from seizing another ship, but there are not enough for a blockade in the danger zone that sprawls across 1.1 million square miles, said a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss operational matters.
The Alabama was the sixth vessel in a week to be hit by pirates who have extorted tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.
Associated Press writers who contributed to this report include Mohamed Olad Hassan and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia; Pauline Jelinek, Anne Gearan and Matt Apuzzo in Washington; Elizabeth Kennedy in Nairobi; Ray Henry in Bourne, Mass.; John Curran in Underhill, Vt.; Brian Skoloff in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Christine Armario in Bradenton, Fla.; and Larry O'Dell in Norfolk, Va.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.