The seizure of an American crew and cargo demonstrates the limits of U.S. military power in an international cops-and-robbers chase along a huge, lawless stretch of African coastline.
The outcome for the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama and its crew off the coast of Somalia was still unclear early Thursday. The crew had retaken control of the cargo ship from a band of pirates, but the captain was still held by the attackers in one of the ship’s lifeboats.
An American Navy destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, was "at the scene and in command," Maersk spokesman Kevin Speers said Thursday. The Alabama, he said, "remains at a safe distance, as instructed by the Navy."
A senior Pentagon official described the situation Thursday morning as "somewhat of a standoff." The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of talking about a military operation in progress.
The Navy was using P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and other equipment to keep a close watch on the scene.
"We’re deeply concerned and we’re following it very closely," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday. "More generally, the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy."
President Barack Obama was closely following the pirate-hostage drama, the first of its kind in modern history involving a U.S. crew, said Denis McDonough, a senior foreign policy adviser at the White House.
"We have watched with alarm the increasing threat of piracy," McDonough said. "The administration has an intense interest in the security of navigation."
The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships, including the cruiser USS Gettysburg, that had been patrolling in the region. But they were about 345 miles and several hours away when the Maersk Alabama was seized, officials said.
The Obama administration has so far done no better than its predecessor to thwart the growing threat of piracy. Since January, pirates have staged 66 attacks, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
There is too much area to cover and too many commercial vessels to protect for full-time patrols or escorts. U.S. legal authority is limited, even in the case of American hostages and a cargo of donated American food. And the pirates, emboldened by fat ransoms, have little reason to fear being caught.
"The military component here is always going to be marginal," said Peter Chalk, an expert on maritime national security at the private Rand Corp.
Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the British think tank Chatham House, said the pirates might conclude that they have a more valuable cargo in the crew and can ask for a larger ransom. Yet, Middleton said, the attention the incident is bringing to their activities "will reinforce in American political and military circles the implications of this issue."
"It’s probably not the smartest thing to have done," he said.
Moreover, the pirates’ strategy could backfire if the U.S. takes military action against them, Middleton said. "Calculations for American special forces will be the same as for British, or French, or Turkish, or whoever," he said. "Storming one of the ships in the pirates’ hands will be a very dangerous proposition, though not an impossible one."
According to the Navy, it would take 61 ships to control the shipping route in the Gulf of Aden, which is just a fraction of the 1.1 million square miles where the pirates have operated. A U.S.-backed international anti-piracy coalition currently has 12 to 16 ships patrolling the region at any one time.
Along the Somali coastline, an area roughly as long as the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, pirate crews have successfully held commercial ships hostage for days or weeks until they are ransomed. In the past week, pressured by naval actions off Somalia, the pirates have shifted their operations farther out into the Indian Ocean, expanding the crisis.
Oceans of that immense size cannot be patrolled completely, even with high-tech detection equipment doing some of the work.
"Wherever the police are, the robbers will go somewhere else," Chalk said.
There are also legal questions about where and how to prosecute pirates and about how far the U.S. military can or should go to help or protect commercial ships.
In December, alarmed by increases in hijacking incidents, the Bush administration sought and won U.N. Security Council authorization to expand international naval operations against Somali pirates to allow the pursuit of suspects on the ground in Somalia.
The move, which came at a special session attended by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other foreign ministers, was the fourth taken by the council in the second half of 2008 alone to combat the pirates.
Three months into the international anti-piracy campaign, as many as 17 nations are participating in increased patrols and more are expected to join.
But U.S. defense officials say the only realistic solution is on shore in Somalia, where money from the piracy ransoms fuels militant activities in the largely lawless country.
Navy officials have urged patience, saying the key will be to watch for progress over the next year to see if the increased patrols and agreements for piracy prosecutions begin to work.
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, told the House Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon is looking at the question of ordering strikes inside Somalia and said that, "ultimately, the solution to the problem of piracy is ashore — in Somalia."
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek, Lolita C. Baldor, Pamela Hess and Matthew Lee in Washington and Jennifer Quinn in London contributed to this report.