NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somali pirates have captured their first American hostage, a cargo ship’s captain.
They and their prisoner are drifting on a lifeboat without fuel, and are being tracked by a U.S. warship and other naval vessels in the area.
How will the saga end?
* The four pirates holding ship captain Richard Phillips are drifting on a lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama freighter, which they briefly hijacked on Wednesday before the 20-man American crew regained control. They have guns, but are without fuel, and it is not clear how much food and water they have.
* So despite having Phillips, the pirates are still in a precarious situation. Friends in contact with the gang say they want a ransom. But Washington may not want to set a precedent by paying one, and would be more likely to promise them safe passage home if they release their hostage.
* The USS Bainbridge, a naval destroyer, is near the lifeboat and the FBI is involved in negotiations.
* Somali pirates are always motivated by financial gain, and generally treat hostages relatively well. Former hostages speak of being fed goat meat and allowed to phone relatives.
* Many around the world wonder why naval vessels do not simply storm boats seized by Somali pirates, given their superior firepower. This seldom happens, however, due to the risk of death or injury to hostages.
* U.S. officials have said they are seeking a peaceful solution to secure Phillips’ freedom, but will not rule out any option, and are sending more ships to the area.
* One of the ships on its way is the USS Halyburton, a guided missile frigate with two helicopters on board.
* The pirates say they will fight if attacked.
* The pirates may be prepared to wait as long as it takes to achieve their ends, but a big factor is food and water. It is not clear what supplies the gang have on the lifeboat, and whether the nearby USS Bainbridge is prepared to provide any extra provisions during negotiations.
* At least two boats full of armed pirates have left shore pledging to help their friends.
* Experts and Somalis, however, believe that is largely symbolic, as the Americans would be sure to block — and possibly sink — any such boats from approaching.
* It has taken the involvement of Americans this week to swing the international spotlight again onto the long-running Somali piracy phenomenon.
* However the standoff ends, diplomats hope Washington’s heightened concern over piracy will bring a second phase in the international response. A deployment of foreign naval ships around the Gulf of Aden at the end of last year and start of 2009 appears merely to have pushed the pirates further out into the Indian Ocean.
* How the world’s navies can patrol such a vast area — against fast and flexible gangs using “mother ships,” speedboats and sophisticated tracking devices — is quite a problem. The pirates are also often indistinguishable from fishermen prior to launching an attack, meaning that preemption is hard.
* Everyone agrees the real solution to piracy is achieving peace and stable central government in Somalia.
* That has eluded the Horn of Africa nation since 1991, when warlords toppled a military dictator.
* Since then, there have been 15 attempts to restore central government, the latest being the administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, formed in a U.N.-brokered peace process earlier this year.
* Though an Islamist himself, Ahmed faces an insurgency by Islamist militants who attack his government and African Union (AU) peacekeepers regularly. The government has little tangible control beyond certain areas of Mogadishu.
* Violence has intensified poverty in Somalia, where many of the young and unemployed now view the riches available from piracy as a dazzling alternative.