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Talks Continue to Release US Cargo Captain Held by Somali Pirates

Efforts are continuing to free an American cargo ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates.

Senior U.S. officials declined to provide details on the situation off the Somali coast. Vice President Joe Biden simply said the administration was working "round the clock" to resolve the issue.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters President Barack Obama has been kept up to date on the state of affairs.

"The president has followed the situation closely, has got updates throughout yesterday and today," he said. "And obviously, his main concern is for the safety of the captain and the rest of the crew on the ship. And he will continue to receive those updates."

The incident occurred Wednesday when Somali pirates boarded the container ship Maersk Alabama about 500 kilometers off the coast of Somalia. The 20 man crew regained control of the Danish-owned, American-operated ship. But the ship's captain - Richard Phillips - was taken hostage as the pirates escaped aboard a lifeboat.

The U.S. Navy destroyer Bainbridge is on the scene and negotiators led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are talking to the pirates in an effort to release Captain Phillips.

"The safe return of the captain is our foremost priority," said Kevin Speers, a spokesman for the Maersk company. "We are encouraged that most of the crew is safe. They have been resilient and courageous throughout this crisis."

The London-based International Maritime Bureau - an organization that tracks crimes on the high seas - says the waters off Somalia, including the Gulf of Aden, are the most dangerous in the world for international shipping. All types of ships, from small vessels to container ships and huge oil tankers, are targets for pirates.

The pirates from Somalia, working off so-called "mother ships", often launch one or two speed boats with about four or five men aboard. Armed with automatic weapons and in some cases rocket-propelled grenades, they approach the ship, force it to slow down and then board it. Analysts say the pirates are not interested in the cargo - they want only the ransom money which could begin at two to three million dollars per vessel.

Retired U.S. Army Colonel Ralph Peters says one of the reasons the pirates are so successful, is that the crews of the ships attacked are not armed. Colonel Peters says that is due to insurance issues.

"If ships were to fight back, insurance rates would skyrocket because the insurance companies, the maritime insurers are looking at what costs the most," he said. "And by their calculations, liability claims, actual damage to the ships or cargo might cost more than the $1 million or $2- or $3 million ransom.'

Peter Chalk, a maritime security expert with the RAND Corporation, says there are other reasons.

"Traditional flag states will not allow vessels that they register to be armed," he said. "And also, it's not really a good thing - some of the crew members you just simply don't want to have these people armed. There is always the chance that they could take over the vessel and that they could try and steal the cargo."

Chalk and others say the international community must seriously address the power vacuum in Somalia, otherwise piracy might spiral out of control.