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      Seafarers official: Pirates hijack US tugboat

      This undated image made available in London, Wednesday by Maersk Line, shows the Maersk Arun, sister ship to the 17,000-ton container ship Maersk Alabama, which has been hijacked by Somali pirates with 20 crew members aboard, while sailing from Salalah in Oman to the Kenyan port of Mombassa via Djibouti. / AP photo

      NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) " The head of a Kenyan seafarers' program said Saturday that Somali pirates had hijacked an American-owned tugboat with 16 crew in the Gulf of Aden.

      Nairobi-based Italian Ambassador Pierandrea Magistrati said he only could confirm that "there is a boat that has been hijacked, I believe by Somali pirates."

      The hijacking took place as the American captain of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama was still being held hostage on a lifeboat being watched by two U.S. warships.

      The head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, Andrew Mwangura, said maritime industry sources had informed his organization that the Italian-flagged U.S. tugboat was towing two barges when it was attacked. He said it was unclear if the attack took place off the coast of Somalia or further north near Yemen. He said did not know what was on the barges.

      Mwangura said the attack was launched around 11 a.m. (0800 GMT) Saturday.

      More U.S. warships were trying to stop Somali pirates from sending reinforcements to the lifeboat where the American captain was being held for a fourth day hundreds of miles from land, a diplomat said Saturday.

      The Nairobi-based diplomat, who receives regular briefings on the situation, said the four pirates holding Capt. Richard Phillips in a lifeboat under the close watch of U.S. warships some 380 miles off shore had tried to summon other pirates from the Somali mainland.

      The diplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said that pirates had been trying to reach the lifeboat. A Somali who described himself as having close ties to pirate networks also said the pirates were trying to reach the lifeboat.

      The Somali told The Associated Press that pirates had set out in four commandeered ships with hostages from a variety of nations including the Philippines, Russia and Germany. The diplomat told the AP that large pirate "motherships" and skiffs were heading in the direction of the lifeboat.

      A second Somali man who said he had spoken by satellite phone to a pirate piloting a seized German freighter told the AP by phone Saturday that the pirate captain had reported being blocked by U.S. forces and was returning Saturday to the pirate stronghold of Harardhere.

      Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, he said the pirate told him the ship was in sight of a U.S. Navy destroyer Saturday morning local time, received a U.S. warning not to come any closer and, fearing attack, left the scene without ever seeing the lifeboat.

      A Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations said in Washington Saturday morning that there had been no developments overnight. He declined to comment on the report that the U.S. Navy had turned back the pirates.

      The diplomat said from Nairobi that at least two American ships and U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft had been attempting to deter pirate ships and skiffs from contact with the lifeboat but he did not know if the pirates and Navy ships had come into contact.

      The Somali man said the pirate also told him that two other commandeered ships from Taiwan and Greece that were trying to reach the lifeboat feared a showdown with the U.S. Navy and returned to Eyl, a port that serves as a pirate hub, on Friday night. It was not immediately possible to contact people in Eyl Saturday.

      The Somali man said the fourth ship that had tried to reach the lifeboat was a Norwegian tanker that was released Friday after a $2 million ransom was paid. The owner of the Norwegian tanker Bow Asir confirmed Friday that it had been released two weeks after it was seized by armed pirates off the Somali coast, and all 27 of its crew members were unhurt.

      Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, was seized Wednesday when he thwarted the takeover of the 17,000-ton U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, which was carrying food aid for hungry people in Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda. He told his crew of 20 to lock themselves in a cabin, crew members told stateside relatives.

      Phillips surrendered himself to safeguard his men. The crew later overpowered some of the pirates but the Somalis fled with the captain to an enclosed lifeboat, the relatives said.

      The Alabama was heading toward the Kenyan port of Mombasa " its original destination " with 20 American crew members aboard. It was expected to arrive Saturday night, said Joseph Murphy, whose son is second-in-command of the vessel.

      On Friday, Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the sensitive, unfolding operations.

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

      Sailors on the USS Bainbridge, which has rescue helicopters and lifeboats, were able to see Phillips but at several hundred yards away were too far to help him. The U.S. destroyer is keeping its distance, in part to stay out of the pirates' range of fire.

      The lifeboat has some gas and the ability to move, according to U.S. defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive details.

      U.S. sailors saw Phillips moving around and talking after his return to the lifeboat, and the Defense Department officials said they think he is unharmed.

      The Bainbridge was joined Friday by the USS Halyburton, which has helicopters, and the huge, amphibious USS Boxer was expected soon after, the defense officials said. The Boxer, the flagship of a multination anti-piracy task force, resembles a small aircraft carrier. It has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.

      The vice president of the Philippines, the nation with the largest number of sailors held captive by Somali pirates, appealed for the safety of hostages to be ensured in the standoff.

      "We hope that before launching any tactical action against the pirates, the welfare of every hostage is guaranteed and ensured," said Vice President Noli de Castro. "Moreover, any military action is best done in consultation with the United Nations to gain the support and cooperation of other countries."

      France's navy on Friday freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed.

      France's defense minister promised an autopsy and investigation into the death of the hostage killed during the commando operation, which freed four other captives and was prompted by threats the passengers would be executed.

      The pirates had seized the sailboat carrying Florent Lemacon, his wife, 3-year-old son and two friends off the Somali coast a week ago.

      Two pirates were killed, and Lemacon died in an exchange of fire as he tried to duck down the hatch. Three pirates were taken prisoner in the operation, and are to be brought to France for criminal proceedings.

      Piracy along the anarchic and impoverished Somali coast, the longest in Africa, has risen in recent years.

      Somali pirates have been seizing ships with many hostages and anchoring it near shore, where they have quickly escaped to land and begun negotiations for multimillion-dollar ransoms.

      They hold about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group based in Malaysia. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Alabama.


      Associated Press writers who contributed to this report include Mohamed Olad Hassan and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia; Pauline Jelinek, Anne Gearan, Robert Burns and Matt Apuzzo in Washington; Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines; and Pierre-Yves Roger in Paris.

      Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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