Somali pirates hit another US-flagged cargo ship

Attack delays return of Vt. captain, crew

By Peter Schworm and John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / April 15, 2009
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Pirates attacked a US-flagged cargo ship off the coast of Somalia with rockets and automatic weapons yesterday, but failed to board the craft, the ship's owner and the US military said.

The crew of the Liberty Sun was unharmed, but the vessel suffered damage, according to a statement from Liberty Maritime Corp, of Lake Success, N.Y. The ship immediately requested help from the US Navy, which sent forces, the statement said.

It was the second attack in a week on a US-flagged ship in the region. On Sunday, US snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed the American ship captain they had been holding hostage for five days.

In yesterday's attack, pirates fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at the vessel, which was carrying US food aid for African nations to Mombasa, Kenya, from Houston, Liberty Maritime said.

"The USS Bainbridge was directed to turn around and assist and went to help," the official said. The pirates were gone when the vessel arrived three hours later, the official said on the condition of anonymity. The Bainbridge was the same ship that helped rescue cargo ship captain Richard Phillips on Sunday. He was believed to be aboard the vessel when it went to assist yesterday.

Phillips and the 19-member crew of the Maersk Alabama had been expected to return to the United States today on a chartered flight from Kenya to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the shipping line said.

The group left its cargo ship yesterday for a hotel in Mombasa, celebrating their skipper's freedom as they awaited a reunion with the Vermont captain who helped secure theirs.

Phillips and the crew will be reunited with their relatives in a private reception, when they return to the United States, officials at Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Line said. But the return was delayed by yesterday's attack.

Somali pirates, meanwhile, showed no signs of relenting yesterday, seizing four other ships and taking 60 crew members hostage as they vowed to retaliate for the US killings of three of Phillips's captors.

"Our latest hijackings are meant to show that no one can deter us from protecting our waters from the enemy because we believe in dying for our land," Omar Dahir Idle told the Associated Press by telephone earlier in the day. "Our guns do not fire water. I am sure we will avenge."

Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States takes the threats seriously but is ready to respond to acts of retaliation. "We're very well prepared to deal with anything like that," he said on "Good Morning America."

On Monday, US officials warned that they are considering attacks on pirate havens in coastal Somali villages. President Obama said he "is resolved to halt the rise of [piracy] in that region."

The wife of Shane Murphy, the Alabama's chief officer, who lives in Seekonk, told reporters yesterday that the past week has been draining for her and her two young sons. "Overwhelming, I think, is the best word," Serena Murphy said. "But I have children, and they're young, so I have to make sure and keep them happy. . . . It has been very difficult being alone as a mother."

Shane Murphy's father, Joseph, said his son and the other crewmembers are scheduled to visit the White House. He said he was thrilled at the honorary invitation. "He deserves it," Joseph Murphy said yesterday in Bourne, where he teaches at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. "We are absolutely, positively proud of him. We are just happy that he is safe."

Murphy, recalling his son's impassioned plea Monday for Obama to take aggressive action, quipped that he hoped his son "remembers the manners he's been taught and he thanks everybody when he gets there."

In his maritime security class yesterday, Murphy spoke intently about the lessons the shipping industry, and the country, should learn from the crisis.

"I am very happy to say that in the response we didn't leave one of ours behind," he told cadets.

He added: "I can honestly say I am starting to rebuild my confidence, my trust, my pride in my nation." Military might alone, he said, will not bring about a long-term solution to the piracy along the Horn of Africa.

"The root cause of this problem is poverty in this area and the residual weapons left over by many wars," he told the students. "No amount of law enforcement is ever going to overcome this until the need for this economic survival mechanism is removed."

James Staples, a sea captain and friend of Phillips who will soon return to the Gulf of Aden, said he will have a security plan to counteract some of the pirates' advantages, namely small boats capable of very high speeds.

One solution is to maintain high speeds so it becomes too dangerous for pirates to approach. Suction created by the spinning propeller will pull a small boat underwater, he said.

Cadet Kyle Ingersoll, a student of Murphy's from Wakefield, said that while the attack on the Alabama has brought home the piracy threat, the US response made him more confident about heading to sea. "It kind of makes you happy that they are not going to bargain and the United States is going to deal with this seriously."

Information from Reuters was used in the compilation of this report.