Tense Standoff Between U.S., Pirates Mirrors Lawless Trend Off Somali Coast

The intensifying scene of a pirate standoff with the U.S. Navy is a bleak case study in the lawless dynamics of the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia.

The captain of a U.S.-flagged ship hijacked this week by a band of pirates attempted to escape Friday but didn't make it far, as the pirates fired gunshots and recaptured him. They then proceeded to demand a $2 million ransom, according to a Somali negotiator.

The Navy has sent the USS Bainbridge to the scene, and the pirates reportedly have called in reinforcements as well, seeking help from other bands of pirates on hijacked ships in the region.

The Navy is also moving a huge amphibious ship closer to the scene of the pirate hostage standoff off Somalia.

Defense officials say the USS Boxer will be nearby soon. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss sensitive ship movements.

The Boxer is the flag ship for a multination anti-piracy task force. The Boxer resembles a small aircraft carrier. It has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.

The fate Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, hangs in the balance, but he is not alone. At least a dozen ships and more then 200 crew members are being held by pirates in the region.

The threat of Somali pirate has escalated in the past year, with world governments seemingly powerless to stop it. And countries' typical methods for resolving such cases are hardly ideal, from paying ransoms to taking the pirates by force.

The latter approach can produce bittersweet results, as was seen Friday when France's navy stormed a yacht held by pirates, resulting in the deaths of two pirates and one of their hostages. Four other hostages were freed.

How Past Hijackings Have Been Resolved

The pirates holding Phillips, 53, have said they are ready to kill him if attacked, the Somali negotiator said Friday. They are floating in a lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama as the main ship heads back to land with its crew, leaving the standoff in the hands of the U.S. Navy.

The cargo ship was stormed by the pirates Wednesday. The crew was able to reclaim the ship, but not before the pirates fled with Phillips, prompting the standoff that is proving to be an early foreign policy test of Obama administration.

Shipping company Maersk said Thursday, prior to the escape attempt, that Phillips had a radio and contacted the Navy and the crew of the Alabama to say he was unharmed.

Sometime overnight, Phillips jumped off the lifeboat in an attempt to swim away, probably managing to escape through the lifeboat's back door. The drama was witnessed at some distance by the U.S. Navy, but it reportedly happened so quickly they could not provide assistance.

Defense officials said that one of the pirates fired an automatic weapon, but it was not clear whether the pirate fired at the fleeing hostage or into the air.

The ransom announcement was made by an unidentified Somali negotiator, who helped negotiate a ransom paid last year to pirates who had seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks.

The negotiator said he has spoken with a pirate leader on the ground in Somalia who is coordinating action on the lifeboat adrift in the Indian Ocean. He said the plan is to get the hostage to shore to negotiate from a better position.

The pirates also are counting on backup from colleagues on other ships who are using Russian, German, Filipino and other hostages captured in recent days as human shields.

"We are safe and we are not afraid of the Americans," one of the four pirates holding Phillips told Reuters by satellite phone. "We will defend ourselves if attacked."

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The U.S. has brought in FBI hostage negotiators to work with the military in trying to secure the release of Phillips. An official said the bandits were in talks with the Navy about resolving the standoff peacefully.

Phillips helped thwart the initial takeover by telling his crew of about 20 to lock themselves in a room, the crew told stateside relatives. Later, after the crew overpowered some of the pirates, Phillips surrendered himself to the bandits to safeguard his men, the relatives said.

With the Navy in control of the scene, the Alabama began sailing toward the Kenyan port of Mombassa — its original destination — and was expected to arrive Saturday night, said Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy whose son, Shane Murphy, is second in command of the vessel. The elder Murphy said he was briefed by the shipping company.

A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, said a Navy team of armed guards was aboard the Alabama.

"These people are nothing more than criminals and we are bringing to bear a number of our assets, including naval and FBI, in order to resolve the hostage situation and bring the pirates to justice," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

President Obama was getting regular updates on the situation, said spokesman Robert Gibbs. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the United States will take whatever steps are needed to protect U.S. shipping interests against pirates.

Steve Romano, a retired head of the FBI hostage negotiation team, said he doesn't recall the FBI ever negotiating with pirates before, but he said this situation is similar to other standoffs. Although pirates release the vast majority of their hostages unharmed, the difficulty will be negotiating with people who clearly have no way out, he said.

"There's always a potential for tragedy here, and when people feel their options are limited, they sometimes react in more unpredictable and violent ways," Romano said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.