Image: US warship
U.S. Navy via AP
The guided missile frigate USS Halyburton is among the warships en route to the hostage-taking off Somalia, where they will join the USS Bainbridge.
NBC News and news services
updated 4/10/2009 1:30:30 PM ET 2009-04-10T17:30:30

The American captain held hostage by four Somali pirates made a desperate escape attempt Friday but was recaptured after they fired shots, and officials said other pirates sought to reinforce their colleagues by sailing hijacked ships with other captives aboard to the scene of the standoff.

In another hostage-taking, France's government said Friday it had rescued four French hostages and killed two pirates aboard a hijacked yacht, but that a fifth hostage was killed in the raid in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia. One of the rescued was a child and three pirates were apprehended, France said.

Several hours earlier, at around midnight local time, American Richard Phillips tried to swim away from a lifeboat but was pulled back by pirates who had initially tried to hijack his ship. One of the pirates then fired an automatic weapon, Pentagon sources said, although it was not clear if the shots were fired at Phillips or into the air, and he returned to the lifeboat.

The escape bid was witnessed by the U.S. Navy but happened too quickly for them to come to his aid.

The lifeboat was drifting at sea after running out of fuel, and the pirates have vowed to fight any attack by U.S. naval forces stalking them at high sea.

"We are not afraid of the Americans," one of the pirates told Reuters by satellite phone on behalf of the gang holding Phillips in the Indian Ocean. "We will defend ourselves if attacked."

Reinforcement for pirates
A Somali in contact with a pirate leader said the captors want a ransom and are ready to kill  Phillips — who was taken hostage in their failed effort to hijack the cargo ship Maersk Alabama on Wednesday — if attacked.

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 Maersk Alabama, which Phillips' captained.

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.

The U.S., meanwhile, was bolstering its force by dispatching the USS Halyburton and other warships to the site off the Horn of Africa, where the USS Bainbridge was already shadowing the drifting lifeboat.

"We want to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days,"  said U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus.

Negotiations had been taking place between the pirates and the captain of the Bainbridge, who is getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators, officials said.

Four other hijacked ships en route
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 ships 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. "We knew they were gathering yesterday."

Video: What happened? Samaw said two ships left Eyl on Wednesday. A third sailed from Haradhere, another pirate base in Somalia, and the fourth one 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 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 pirate, 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," he added.

Phillips 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.

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. "

The Alabama sailed away from the lifeboat Thursday, and a team of armed Navy SEALs is on board.

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 Massachusetts Maritime Academy whose son, Shane Murphy, is second-in-command of the vessel.

Lifeboat is enclosed
Most of the lifeboats are about 28 feet long and carry water and food for 34 people for 10 days, said  Murphy.

The lifeboats are covered and Murphy, speaking after a briefing by the shipping company, said he suspects the pirates have closed the boat's ports to avoid sniper fire.

The incident follows an increase in the number of attacks and the first one on a U.S.-flagged ship.

The larger U.S. warship presence will strengthen surveillance and may dissuade pirates from seizing another ship, but there are not enough warships to mount a blockade in the vast danger zone, 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.

President Barack Obama is getting regular updates on the situation, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Steve Romano, a retired head of the FBI hostage negotiation team, said he does not 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.

More on Pirates | Somalia

NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Capt. Phillips’ daring escape attempt

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