The military called in FBI hostage negotiators Thursday to aid in a standoff in waters where Somali pirates held the American captain of a hijacked cargo ship that was later retaken by the crew, as a U.S. destroyer kept watch.
The U.S. Navy said it wants to resolve the incident without military force as the FBI joined the delicate negotiations for Capt. Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage as pirates escaped into a lifeboat Wednesday in the first such attack on American sailors in 200 years.
A military team of armed guards is reportedly aboard the Maersk Alabama, after the USS Bainbridge arrived early Thursday off the Horn of Africa near where the pirates were floating.
The Alabama is currently headed to a Kenyan port, the father of a crew member aboard the vessel said.
Joseph Murphy, whose son Shane Murphy is second in command on the ship, says he was told about the development by company officials who are briefing families. Murphy says he estimates it will arrive in Mombasa, Kenya, in about 50 hours.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the United States will take whatever steps are needed to protect U.S. shipping interests against pirates. It was too early to know whether the pirates would be tried in the United States if they are captured.
Kevin Speers, a spokesman for the ship company Maersk, said that the lifeboat holding the pirates and the captain is out of fuel.
"The boat is dead in the water," he told AP Radio. "It's floating near the Alabama. It's my understanding that it's floating freely."
"The captain remains hostage but is unharmed at this time," Phillips said during a press conference Thursday. "The safe return of the captain is the foremost priority."
Maersk would not answer any questions while the dynamic situation is ongoing and asked the media not to contact the ship because the calls distract the crew and compromise their safety.
The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships that had been patrolling in the region when the 17,000-ton U.S.-flagged cargo ship and its 20 crew were captured Wednesday.
Contacts tell FOX News the Maersk company asked the U.S. military to "stand back" for the moment while it tries to work things out itself, indicating Maersk is willing to pay a ransom in the starting area of $10 million to achieve Phillips' freedom.
Phillips' family was gathered at his Vermont farmhouse, anxiously watching news reports and taking telephone calls from the U.S. State Department to learn if he would be freed.
"We are on pins and needles," said Gina Coggio, 29, half-sister of Phillips' wife, Andrea, as she stood on the porch of his one-story house Wednesday in a light snow. "I know the crew has been in touch with their own family members, and we're hoping we'll hear from Richard soon."
Phillips surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safety of the crew, Coggio said.
"What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage," she said. "That is what he would do. It's just who he is and his response as a captain."
With one warship nearby and more on the way, piracy expert Roger Middleton from London-based think tank Chatham House said the pirates were facing difficult choices.
"The pirates are in a very, very tight corner," Middleton said. "They've got only one guy, they've got nowhere to hide him, they've got no way to defend themselves effectively against the military who are on the way and they are hundreds of miles from Somalia."
The pirates would probably try to get to a mothership, he said, one of the larger vessels that tow the pirates' speedboats out to sea and resupply them as they lie in wait for prey. But they also would be aware that if they try to take Phillips to Somalia, they might be intercepted. And if they hand him over, they would almost certainly be arrested.
"If I was a pirate at this point, I think I'd resign and take up gardening," Middleton said.
Other analysts say the U.S. will be reluctant to use force as long as one of its citizens remains hostage. French commandos, for example, have mounted two military operations against pirates once the ransom had been paid and its citizens were safe.
The Maersk Alabama, en route to neighboring Kenya and loaded with relief aid, was attacked about 380 miles east of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. It was the sixth vessel seized in a week.
Many of the pirates have shifted their operations down the Somali coastline from the Gulf of Aden to escape naval warship patrols, which have had some success in preventing attacks in the Gulf of Aden.
The string of attacks follow a lull during a period of bad weather. The Maersk Alabama was the 66th attack on shipping this year so far this year, already an increase on the 111 attacks reported off the Horn of Africa last year.
International attention focused on Somali pirates last year after the audacious hijackings of an arms shipment and a Saudi oil supertanker. Currently warships from more than a dozen nations are patrolling off the Somali coast but analysts say the multimillion-dollar ransoms paid out by companies ensure piracy in war-ravaged, impoverished Somalia will not disappear.
The attacks often beg the question of why shipowners do not arm their crew to fend off attacks. Much of the problem lies with the cargo. The Saudi supertanker, for example, was loaded with 2 million barrels of oil. The vapor from that cargo was highly flammable; a spark from the firing of a gun could cause an explosion.
There is also the problem of keeping the pirates off the ships — once they're on board, they will very likely fight back and people will die.
Pirates travel in open skiffs with outboard engines, working with larger ships that tow them far out to sea. They use satellite navigational and communications equipment, and have an intimate knowledge of local waters, clambering aboard commercial vessels with ladders and grappling hooks.
Any blip on an unwary ship's radar screens, alerting the crew to nearby vessels, is likely to be mistaken for fishing trawlers or any number of smaller, non-threatening ships that take to the seas every day.
It helps that the pirates' prey are usually massive, slow-moving ships. By the time anyone notices, pirates will have grappled their way onto the ship, brandishing AK-47s.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.