As a hostage drama involving an American merchant ship's captain and a group of pirates continued into Friday, the European Union's anti-piracy force began regular air patrols off the Somali coast in a bid to curb a new wave of piracy in the region.
Richard Phillips, the captain of the U.S.-owned and operated container ship, the Maersk Alabama, and the pirates who attempted to hijack his vessel are floating adrift in one of the Alabama's lifeboats near the scene of the attack.
An American guided missile destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, is standing by within sight of the lifeboat. Two other warships are on their way to the area.
The ship's owners, Maersk Line, Limited, said in a statement: "The captain has been in touch with the crew and with the USS Bainbridge. He has radio contact and has been provided with additional batteries and provisions. The most recent communication indicates that the captain is unharmed."
The Lloyd's Register-Fairplay shipping news web site has reported that the pirates are "conducting ransom negotiations with a satellite telephone." Maersk Line said the U.S. military was handling contact with the pirates.
The Alabama, meanwhile, has left the area and is sailing towards Mombasa, Kenya, its original destination. "This was at the direction of the Navy and deemed to be the safest course of action for all involved and provides the opportunity for some much needed rest for the crew," the Maersk Line said. Among the ship's cargo are 400 containers of U.S. food aid for East Africa.
The European Union's Maritime Security Centre reports that as a result of the deployment in recent months of a strong multi-national protection force in the Gulf of Aden - on the shipping route from the Suez Canal - pirates had moved south into the Somali Basin area.
"This has resulted in a number of hijackings both of merchant vessels and other smaller craft," the centre said. "In an effort to locate these pirates in the vast area of the Indian Ocean EU NAVFOR [the EU force] has now begun regular surveillance sorties using Spanish and French maritime patrol aircraft."
In Washington DC, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, described the pirates as "nothing more than criminals" and said the FBI was working with the Navy to free Captain Phillips.
"One of the very first actions that was undertaken by our country in its very beginning was to go after pirates along the Barbary Coast.... It’s important that we come up with an international resolution of this," she said.
"The ocean area we’re referring to is three times the size of Texas... We’re talking about a very large expanse of water with a lot of naval traffic going through it... We also understand that the instability in Somalia is a contributing factor to those who take to the seas in order to board ships, hijack them, intimidate and threaten their crews, and then seek ransom."