NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) - The American crew of a hijacked U.S.-flagged ship retook control of the vessel from Somali pirates Wednesday but the captain was still being held hostage, according to Pentagon officials and a member of the crew.
The crew member told The Associated Press that the 20-member crew had managed to seize one pirate and then successfully negotiate their own release.
The man, who picked up the ship's satellite phone but did not identify himself, told the AP in a brief conversation that the crew had retaken control of the ship and the pirates were in a lifeboat. But the man also said that they were holding the ship's captain hostage.
The news came hours after Pentagon officials said the crew had retaken the vessel from the Somali pirates who seized it far off the Horn of Africa.
President Barack Obama was following the situation closely, foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough said.
The ship was carrying emergency food relief to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was hijacked, the Copenhagen-based container shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk said.
It was the sixth vessel seized within a week, a rise that analysts attribute to a new strategy by Somali pirates who are operating far from the warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden.
A U.S. official had said around noon Eastern time the crew had retaken control and had one pirate in custody.
"The crew is back in control of the ship," a U.S. official said at midday, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak on the record. "It's reported that one pirate is on board under crew control-the other three were trying to flee," the official said.
Another U.S. official, citing a readout from an interagency conference call, said: "Multiple reliable sources are now reporting that the Maersk Alabama is now under control of the U.S. crew. The crew reportedly has one pirate in custody. The status of others is unclear, they are believed to be in the water."
Maersk Line Limited CEO John F. Reinhart said the vessel's manifest showed it was carrying 401 containers of food aid bound for Africa from USAID, Serving God Ministries, the World Food Program and Catholic Relief.
He said the company received a call around 10:30 a.m. EDT from the crew that indicated the crewmen were safe. But the call got cut off, and the company could not ask any more questions.
"The crew member called to say, 'We are safe.' They did not say they had taken over the vessel. They did not say the pirates are off the vessel," Reinhart said.
Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said that it was the first pirate attack "involving U.S. nationals and a U.S.-flagged vessel in recent memory." She did not give an exact timeframe.
Andrea Phillips, the wife of Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vermont., said her husband has sailed in those waters "for quite some time" and a hijacking was perhaps "inevitable."
Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said his sons, second in command Capt. Shane Murphy, was a 2001 Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate who recently talked to a class about the dangers of piracy.
The younger Murphy wrote on his Facebook profile that he worked in waters between Oman and Kenya.
"These waters are infested with pirates that highjack (sic) ships daily," Murphy wrote on the page, which features a photograph of him. "I feel like it's only a matter of time before my number gets called."
Joseph Murphy said his son was trained in anti-piracy tactics at the academy and received training with firearms and small-arms tactics.
Somali pirates are trained fighters who frequently dress in military fatigues and use speedboats equipped with satellite phones and GPS equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and various types of grenades. Far out to sea, their speedboats operate from larger mother ships.
The U.S. Navy said that the ship was hijacked early Wednesday about 280 miles (450 kilometers) southeast of Eyl, a town in the northern Puntland region of Somalia.
U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said the closest U.S. ship at the time of the hijacking was 345 miles (555 kilometers)away.
The Combined Maritime Forces issued an advisory Wednesday highlighting several recent attacks that occurred hundreds of miles off the Somali coast and stating that merchant mariners should be increasingly vigilant when operating in those waters.
Douglas J. Mavrinac, the head of maritime research at investment firm Jefferies & Co., noted that it is very unusual for an international ship to be U.S.-flagged and carry a U.S. crew. Although about 95 percent of international ships carry foreign flags because of the lower cost and other factors, he said, ships that are operated by or for the U.S. government-such a food aid ships like Maersk Alabama-have to carry U.S. flags, and therefore, employ a crew of U.S. citizens.
There are fewer than 200 U.S.-flagged vessels in international waters, said Larry Howard, chair of the Global Business and Transportation Department at SUNY Maritime College in New York.