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Pirates hold captain hostage, while US crew waits for military help.

The continuing drama of the hijacking of a U.S. commercial ship off the coast of Somalia highlights the growing problem of piracy along the coast of Somalia, a strategic shipping lane for oil.

The might of the U.S. Navy is challenged by four men in a rubber dingie armed with rifles and some rocket-propelled grenades. U.S. President Barack Obama has been following the pirate-hostage drama, said White House officials.

The captain of the U.S.-flagged ship is being held captive by the Somali pirates, according to CNN.

"There's four Somali pirates and they got our captain," said Ken Quinn, second officer on the Maersk Alabama, in a ship-to-shore interview.

The four pirates boarded the ship in the early hours Wednesday about 350 miles off the coast of Somalia.

There was a prolonged scuffle for control of the ship. The American crew took one of the pirates prisoner but the pirates took as hostage Captain Richard Phillips. The two sides agreed to exchange the two hostages, but once the U.S. crew returned the Somali, the pirates reneged on their agreement to return the captain.

Captain Phillips is being held by the pirates in the Alabama's 28-foot lifeboat alongside the ship.

"So now we're just trying to offer them whatever we can, food, but it's not working too good," said Quinn.

He said the crew is trying to hold off the pirates until a U.S. warship can arrive.

U.S. officials say that the USS Bainbridge is closing in on the Maersk Alabama as well as six other warships to offer assistance to the ship and free its captain.

The U.S. ship is monitoring the ship and the dinghy with military P3 surveillance planes flying overhead.

But as the warship, which is equipped with Tomahawk guided missiles, torpedoes and two MH-60 Knighthawk helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles.

But it was not clear what the might ship could do to resolve the hostage situation once it got to the ship and dinghy. Options include negotiation, backed by the threat of force. 

This is the latest twist on the case of the Maersk Alabama. Earlier it had been reported that the 20 American crew members had regained control of their U.S. flagged ship from pirates who had seized it earlier today off the coast of Somalia.

The Pentagon has confirmed the ship, the Maersk Alabama, is back in the hands of the American crew after being hijacked by Somali pirates.

The hijacking was the sixth over the past week, according to the International Maritime Bureau, which has a live interactive map of piracy activity around the world. The ship was carrying international food aid to to Mombassa, Kenya, when it was attacked about 310 miles off Somalia's coast.

The latest incident highlights that piracy is increasing on the key shipping routes along the Somali coastline.

Other ships seized by pirates this week include a British-owned tanker. Over the weekend it was a 41-foot French yacht sailed by a family opting out of modern life and sailing the seas. The family, including a three-year-old boy, is still being held by the pirates. Fifteen ships have been hijacked off the Somali coast so far in 2009.

Despite the presence of Islamist extremists in Somalia the pirates have so far proved to be more interested in money than ideology.

And the money has been flowing. Shipping companies pay on average $1-2 million in ransom for the safe release of their vessels and crew. It is estimated that Somali pirates made at least $30 million last year, dwarfing the budgets of the regional governments supposed to control them.

The money is spent on satellite phones, handheld GPSs, AK47s, rocket-propelled grenades, fast outboard motors, big houses, smart cars, bribes to officials and (according to one Somali source) new wives.

The 4 million square mile Gulf of Aden is a rich hunting ground for the pirates, who target a tiny handful of the 20,000 ships that sail through each year on their way to and from the Suez Canal, a waterway that cuts three weeks and more than 4,000 miles off the old route round
South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

Vainly hoping to police this vast patch of sea and protect the ships from pirates is a compendium of international navies with impressive-sounding acronyms such as CTF-151 or EUNAVFOR.

NATO has also been here and there’s an ad hoc collection of international gunboats from China, India, Malaysia, Russia and others aiming to protect their own flag-carriers.

When one of the dozens of awesome warships bristling with missiles and guns, packed with marines and loaded with attack helicopters bear down on a little wooden pirate skiff the pirates are supposed to get scared and lay down their weapons, or at least stop whatever they are doing. It doesn’t seem to work that way.

The pirates are well-organised and professional. Analysts point out that despite the fact that every attack is by well-armed men there are very few killings. In 2007 the International Maritime Bureau said that one in every three attempted pirate hijackings was successful.

Attacks are continuing on an almost daily basis suggesting that 2009 will be a bumper year for the buccaneers of Somalia. In 2008, there were well over 100 reported incidents.