Somali pirates have hijacked another vessel in the Horn of Africa, a freighter seized overnight in the Gulf of Aden, maritime security contractors said today.
The MV Irene EM is the latest victim of pirates who appear undeterred by US and French navy operations to free hostages which have killed seven bandits in the past week.
The contractors did not know who owned the ship or where it was licensed.
The Irene is at least the third vessel hijacked in a week. The night-time attack suggests the pirates, who win multimillion-dollar ransoms, are acquiring technology.
Yesterday, US President Barack Obama vowed “to halt the rise of piracy”, while shipmates of a rescued American freighter captain called for tough action against Somali bandits who are preying on one of the world’s busiest sea routes.
Mr Obama appeared to move up the piracy issue on his agenda, saying the United States would work with nations elsewhere in the world.
“I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and, to achieve that goal, we’re going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks,” he said at a Washington news conference.
The night-time rescue operation of Captain Richard Phillips won praise abroad, but it was uncertain how far Mr Obama wanted to go to engage the pirates.
The US was considering options including adding navy gunships along the Somali coastline and launching a campaign to disable pirate “mother ships,” according to military officials.
Some military strategists believe it may ultimately be necessary to attack the pirates’ bases on land in Somalia. But few international allies have the appetite for another land operation in Somalia, where a US military foray in the early 1990s ended in humiliation. And the cost in civilian casualties would likely be extremely high, some warn.
“That would be nuts,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent and State Department counter-terrorism specialist.
“These people are not organised into any military force, they are intermingled with women and children. You’re talking about wiping out villages.”
The chief mate on board Capt Phillips’ ship, the US-flagged Maersk Alabama, was among those urging strong US action.
“It’s time for us to step in and put an end to this crisis,” Shane Murphy said. “It’s a crisis – wake up.”
This morning, the crew left the cargo ship in the Kenyan resort city of Mombasa and boarded buses and checked into a hotel there. It was not immediately clear how long they were planning to stay. Some have said they would return home soon, probably by air.
The crew walked into the hotel with luggage, but hotel security guards stopped journalists from entering.
New details emerged yesterday about the stand-off.
Fearing the pirates’ lifeboat was approaching the Somali shore, where they could escape, the USS Bainbridge rammed it back out to sea, said a spokesman for Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. That happened before the Bainbridge put a tow line on the lifeboat to help it navigate the choppy sea.
The four pirates who attacked the Alabama were between 17 and 19 years old, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said.
“Untrained teenagers with heavy weapons,” he told a group of students and faculty at the Marine Corps War College. “Everybody in the room knows the consequences of that.”
US officials were now considering whether to bring the fourth pirate, who surrendered shortly before the sniper shootings, to the United States or possibly turn him over to Kenya. If he is brought to the US, he would most likely be put on trial in New York or Washington.
Both piracy and hostage-taking carry life prison sentences under US law.
The American ship had been carrying food aid bound for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda when the ordeal began last Wednesday, hundreds of miles off Somalia’s eastern coast. As the pirates clambered aboard and fired in the air, Capt Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men.
Capt Phillips was then taken hostage in an enclosed lifeboat which was soon shadowed by three US warships and a helicopter. Navy Seal snipers parachuted from their aircraft into the sea, and were picked up by the USS Bainbridge, a senior US official said.
US defence officials said snipers got the go-ahead to fire after one pirate held an AK-47 close to Capt Phillips’ back.
Snipers killed three pirates with single shots shortly after sailors on the Bainbridge saw the hostage-takers “with their heads and shoulders exposed”, Vice Admiral Gortney said.
Pirates are still holding some 230 foreign sailors hostage in more than a dozen ships anchored off lawless Somalia.