NAIROBI, Kenya — 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.

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. Saturday.

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.”

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 kilometres 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 600 kilometres 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 countries including the Philippines, Russia and Germany. The diplomat said 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.

Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vt., was seized Wednesday when he thwarted the takeover of the 17,000-tonne 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 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 the U.S. Defence Department.

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