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Pirate Hostage’s Safe Return is Primary Concern, U.S. Officials Say

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 9, 2009 – The safe return of the American maritime captain being held captive by pirates off the coast of Somalia is of primary importance, senior U.S. officials said here today at the annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial.

Following ministerial discussions on Afghanistan, U.S. engagement in Asia and other topics, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with reporters. They told reporters the captain’s safe return is of paramount importance and that the situation is being monitored closely.

“We obviously have a naval presence in the area and other assets and we obviously are looking at our options,” Gates said. “But, foremost in our minds is the safety of the captain.”

Clinton, Gates and Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon met with reporters after the group discussed mutual security concerns at the ministerial.

Armed pirates attacked the cargo ship Maersk Alabama yesterday. The vessel was about 300 miles off the Somali coast. The unarmed ship’s crew eventually regained control of the vessel, but the captain offered himself as a hostage to forestall violence.

The captain is now being held by four pirates in a small boat that’s adrift at sea, as the U.S. Navy monitors the situation. The Maersk Alabama is headed to Mombasa, Kenya.

Concerning piracy committed off the Horn of Africa, Clinton said the State Department has taken the lead in establishing an international maritime task force, including vessels and participation from China, South Korea and Japan, to help confront the problem.

The coastal waters off Somalia encompass “a very large expanse of water,” Clinton pointed out.

“We’ve had some success from contributions from this naval task force,” Clinton said. “But, we also understand that the instability in Somalia is a contributing factor to those who take to the seas in order to board ships, highjack them, intimidate and threaten their crews and then seek ransom.”

If there’s good news, Clinton said, it is that no one so far has lost their life as the result of the Maersk Alabama incident.

“And so, like Secretary Gates said, we are following this carefully and monitoring it,” Clinton said. “We have an American citizen who is currently being held hostage by a group of individuals in a lifeboat.

“So, we are watching this and intend to do everything we can to ensure there is no loss of life,” Clinton said.

Also today, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that President Barack Obama is “staying appraised of the situation” involving the captive American captain and the pirates.

The president’s primary concern “is for the safety of the captain and the rest of the crew on the ship,” Gibbs said. “And he will continue to receive those updates.”

The White House has an interagency group on maritime safety, Gibbs said, that includes interagency participation by the departments of Homeland Security, Commerce, Energy, Justice and the FBI, State, Transportation, and the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The interagency maritime group has had a number of meetings and conference calls about this,” Gibbs said. “Obviously, the Navy and the FBI are to some degree on the scene with their resources, and so the resources of our government are deployed in ensuring the safety and security of the captain and the crew.”

Clinton, Gates, and the Australian officials also turned to other topics they’d discussed during the ministerial such as the status of their cooperative efforts in Afghanistan as part of the campaign to defeat extremism, as well as U.S. engagement in Asia.

“Australia has been there with us throughout; has been there in the thick of the fighting and has lost too many of its sons,” Gates said of that nation’s years-long participation in Afghanistan security and stability operations.

The Australian foreign minister thanked Clinton and Gates for “the very positive and constructive and substantive conversation we’ve had today.”

The 60-some-year-old Australia-U.S. security partnership “remains an indispensible part of Australia’s security, strategic and defense arrangements,” Smith said.

Like the United States, Smith said, Australia, too, is concerned about nuclear-proliferation issues with regard to Iran and North Korea.

After hearing details of Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan, the Australian defense minister said his government is considering providing more assistance for U.S.-coalition efforts there.

“We did have, also, a very productive discussion about Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Fitzgibbon said. “Of course, the discussion today gave both Minister Smith and I a greater appreciation of the new (Obama) strategy and how it will work.

“And, we again came out of the meeting with the conclusion that this is a good strategy, it is a welcome strategy and Australia certainly supports that strategy,” Fitzgibbon said.

The United States and the Afghans “can use all the help we can get,” Gates said. “What Australia is prepared to do is clearly up to the Australians.”

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