Captain tried to escape pirates, U.S. official says

Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama is being held by pirates on a lifeboat off Somalia.
Richard Phillips, the captain of a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, tried to escape from his captors Thursday night by jumping out of the lifeboat where he’s being held, a U.S. official said Friday.

Phillips was believed to be trying to swim to the USS Bainbridge, a naval warship that is in communication with the gunmen holding Phillips off Somalia’s coast, the official said. The kidnappers jumped into the water, recaptured him, and returned him to the lifeboat, according to the official. The U.S. military has every reason to believe that he was unharmed in the incident, the official said. Phillips has been held since Wednesday, when the hijackers briefly seized control of his ship, the Maersk Alabama. He is being held by four gunmen in the lifeboat about 300 miles off the Horn of Africa. Meanwhile, two U.S. warships were on their way Friday to help the crew of the Bainbridge secure Phillips’ release. For the U.S. Navy, the show of strength is more than just a means to resolve a hostage situation, said Chris Lawrence, CNN’s Pentagon correspondent. Watch security expert explain the negotiation process » Attacks in the area have picked up so drastically in recent months that the Navy has to reposition some of its fleet to deal with the threats, he said.

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The ships that are en route to help the USS Bainbridge are the USS Halyburton, which is armed with guided missiles and carries helicopters on board, and the USS Boxer, which has a large medical facility on board. The pirates have shown no signs of giving in. How should the U.S. respond The Maersk Alabama was on its way to Mombasa, Kenya, with a cargo of food aid when it was attacked Wednesday. It was the first time in recent history that pirates had targeted an American ship. The ship was hijacked some 350 miles off Somalia’s coast, a distance that used to be considered safe for ships navigating in the pirate-infested waters. There were 21 American crew members, including the captain, on board at the time. The American crew regained control of the vessel but the ship’s owners — the Norfolk, Virginia-based Maersk company — would not say how the crew did so. Watch crew member’s fiancee describe ordeal » “There will be time for due diligence and retrospective review once we have the safe return of all parties and the opportunity for a full debriefing,” it said in a statement. Watch how piracy increases shipping costs »

On Thursday, the Maersk Alabama resumed its journey to Mombasa with an 18-person armed security detail on board. The U.S. Navy, which is in charge of the hostage situation, requested help from the FBI to resolve the standoff.