- hostages - Piracy (maritime) - Somalia
AFP - A shipmate of the US merchant captain captured by Somali pirates hailed him as a "hero" Saturday, as an Italian ship was the latest vessel to be hijacked in the Gulf of Aden.
As US officials considered how best to free Captain Richard Phillips from the lifeboat off the Somali coast where he is being held, members of his crew arrived at the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
In Italy meanwhile, the owners of the tug captured by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden gave more details of the 16-strong crew.
"Ten Italians, five Romanians and a Croat are on board," Claudio Bartolotti of Micoperi Marine Contractors told AFP from the company's headquarters in Ravenna, northern Italy.
An earlier report had suggested that the boat was US-owned but operating under an Italian flag.
At around noon (1000 GMT), the company got word that their vessel, the 75-metre (250-foot) Buccaneer, had been captured, said Bartolotti.
The news came in an email that had probably been sent by the pirates themselves, he added. He had had no word since then.
It was the latest in a series of raids in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, despite the presence of an international task force there to defend international shipping using the busy passage.
US Navy forces have poured into the region amid the standoff over Philipps, who has been held hostage since Wednesday, when the Danish-operated container ship he commanded was attacked.
Four pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama, a freighter carrying 5,000 tonnes of UN aid destined for African refugees.
Its unarmed American crew managed to regain control of the ship, but the pirates bundled Phillips onto the lifeboat as they escaped.
At 8:30 pm local time (1730 GMT) the Maersk Alabama docked at Mombasa. Those crew members visible from the dock looked tired but happy.
"The captain is a hero, he saved our lives," said one crew member, before retreating back inside the vessel.
Journalists were not allowed on board, but a statement from owners Maersk said agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were on hand to debrief the crew after their ordeal.
Speaking from the northern Somali town of Eyl earlier Saturday, pirate commander Abdi Garad told AFP that Phillips would be moved from the lifeboat where he was being held to another ship off the Somali coast.
Overnight Thursday to Friday, he had tried to swim for the nearby US destroyer the USS Bainbridge, but was recaptured by his abductors.
Somali elders and relatives of the pirates holding Philipps were trying to help secure his release on Saturday "without any guns or ransom," said Mwangura in a statement from Kenya.
But Garad warned that any attempt to free him would be disastrous.
"I'm afraid this matter is likely to create disaster because it's taking too long and we are getting information that the Americans are planning rescue tricks like the French commandos did," he said.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin defended Friday's marine raid on a yacht in the region that left one hostage and two pirates dead.
The marines moved in six days after the French yacht, the Tanit, was seized in the Gulf of Aden.
Although they freed three adults and a three-year-old boy, a fourth man, Florent Lemacon, the owner of the yacht and the child's father, was killed.
An autopsy and investigation would determine what had happened, said Morin. He could not rule out that the fatal shot had come from the French forces.
But in comments to French radio, he insisted: "We did everything to save the hostages' lives."
The four ex-hostages -- Lemacon's wife Chloe, their three-year-old son Colin and two other adults -- were due in Paris on Sunday aboard a French-chartered plane, Morin told AFP.
A court in the northern Somali breakaway region of Puntland meanwhile sentenced 10 people to 20 years in jail each for piracy on Saturday.
Local coastguards in Puntland arrested them in October after they hijacked a boat contracted by Somali traders.
Abdirashid Muse Mohamed, one of those sentenced, defended his actions, insisting they were not wrong.
"We are not criminals and the reason we were attacking the ships is that they were collecting the resources from our waters.
The court on Saturday delayed the hearing of nine other pirates who had been arrested by French commandos last year.
Puntland is the main hub for piracy in the Gulf of Aden.