Hijackers 'attack' ship operated by firm with links to Defense Department
NBC News and news services
updated 6:34 a.m. ET April 8, 2009
NAIROBI, Kenya - Somali pirates have hijacked a cargo ship with 21 Americans onboard, officials said on Wednesday.
The 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama was taken Wednesday, according to the Kenya-based diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet confirmed that a Danish-owned, U.S.-operated container ship carrying 21 Americans "came under attack" about 240 nautical miles southeast of Ayel, Somalia. She said the crew had radioed for help but the closest naval ship was about 300 nautical miles away at the time. The official was unable to confirm the name of the vessel.
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Company representatives were not immediately able to confirm the hijacking.
Andrew Mwangura of the Kenya-based East African Seafarers' Assistance Program said all the crew were believed to be safe.
The vessel is the sixth to be seized within a week and the first with an all-American crew.
NBC News reported that the Maersk Alabama left Djibouti on Saturday and was due to arrive in Mombasa, Kenya, on April 12.
Maersk Line is one of the U.S. Department of Defense's primary shipping contractors, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
In the first three months of 2009 only eight ships had been hijacked in the busy Gulf of Aden, which links Europe to Asia and the eastern Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal.
Last year, heavily armed Somali pirates hijacked dozens of vessels, took hundreds of sailors hostage, often for weeks, and extracted millions of dollars in ransoms.
Foreign navies rushed warships to the area in response and have reduced the number of successful attacks in recent months. But there are still near-daily attempts and the pirates have started hunting further afield near the Seychelles.
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On Monday, they hijacked a British-owned, Italian-operated ship with 16 Bulgarian crew members on board.
Over the weekend, they also seized a French yacht, a Yemeni tug and a 20,000-ton German container vessel. Interfax news agency said the Hansa Stavanger had a German captain, three Russians, two Ukrainians and 14 Filipinos on board.
The pirates typically use speed boats launched from "mother ships," which means they can sometimes evade foreign navies patrolling the busy shipping lanes and strike far out to sea.
They take captured vessels to remote coastal village bases in Somalia, where they have usually treated their hostages well in anticipation of a sizeable ransom payment.
Pirates stunned the shipping industry last year when they seized a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil. The Sirius Star and its 25 crew were freed in January after $3 million was parachuted onto its deck.
Last September, they also grabbed world headlines seizing a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying 33 Soviet-era T-72 tanks. It was released in February, reportedly for a $3.2 million ransom.
This is a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.
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