NAIROBI, Kenya -- The U.S. Navy said Thursday it intended to remove pirates from a hijacked Japanese tanker monitored by American warships off the coast of Somalia. A crew member's sister said negotiations were underway for the release of the ship.
The Navy came to the aid of the chemical tanker this week, at one point opening fire to destroy pirate skiffs tied to it.
It also helped a North Korean ship whose crew overpowered pirates in a clash that left several crew members wounded and one hijacker dead. The hijackers were being held aboard the ship until they can be handed over for prosecution at a port. After the clash, Navy personnel boarded the North Korean boat to treat the wounded.
The U.S. military said it was monitoring the two boats off the southern coast of Somalia.
"The goal is to get the pirates off the ships so the ships can return to legitimate shipping traffic and transit," said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.
She gave no other details, citing security concerns.
Negotiations have started for the release of the Japanese tanker, anchored in Somali waters with 23 crew members from the Philippines, South Korea and Myanmar, said Josefina Villanueva, whose brother Laureano is a Filipino supervisor aboard the Golden Nori.
"The pirates are still on board with the crewmen. They can't leave," she said, relaying information families had received from the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs.
She said there had been no ransom demand from the pirates. "The talks are just starting. I think the pirates will later on demand something," she said.
"We're very worried," she added. "We're holding daily prayers in our house."
Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos said there has been no direct contact between the Philippine government and the pirates.
"We won't talk directly to them. We talk with the host government or the Filipinos' employer, in this case the Japanese company" that owns the ship, he said. "We're hoping for the best, we're praying for the best."
"The problem is there is no central government in control" in Somalia, he added.
The Filipino captain called his family this week and told them the crew was safe. The Durval Shipping Company said it had no information about their status Thursday.
The Golden Nori was carrying a load of benzene when the guided missile destroyer USS Porter fired on two pirate boats tied to the chemical tanker Sunday, sinking both. Benzene, an industrial solvent, is both highly flammable and can be fatal if too much is inhaled. The U.S. military said it was aware of what was onboard when it fired at the skiffs.
Somali pirates are trained fighters, in some cases linked to powerful Somali clans, outfitted with sophisticated arms and equipment, including GPS satellite instruments. They have seized merchant ships, ships carrying aid, and once even a cruise ship.
The United States also has supported efforts to quell an Islamic insurgency in Somalia.
Somalia has been without a functioning government since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, then turned on each other. The current government was formed in 2004, but has struggled to assert any real control.