Washington: The US navy on Sunday rescued an American captain whom pirates held in a lifeboat adrift off the coast of Somalia, ending a tense five-day standoff by shooting dead three of his four captors.
Captain Richard Phillips, who had commanded the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, was rescued off the Somali coast around 7:19 pm local time (1619 GMT), the US navy said.
Phillips was held hostage for five days in a lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama after the ship’s all American crew on Wednesday fought off the pirates’ attempt to capture the freighter.
Navy snipers hidden in the stern (rear) of the USS Bainbridge, one of two navy warships that rushed to the scene, shot and killed the pirates, said Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of US naval forces in the region.
The pirates “were pointing the AK-47s at the captain,” who was tied up, Gortney told reporters in a teleconference from the US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.
President Barack Obama had given orders to “take decisive action” if Phillips was at risk at any time, Gortney said.
“The on-scene commander thought that the captain was in imminent danger and then made that decision, and he had the authority to make that decision and he had seconds to make that decision,” said Gortney.
The snipers fired when they had one of the pirates in their sights “and two pirates with their head and shoulders exposed,” Gortney said.
At the time the USS Bainbridge, a guided missile destroyer, was towing the lifeboat to calmer waters and was some 25 to 30 meters (82 to 98 feet) ahead of the boat.
Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land Forces) commandos were involved in the rescue, Gortney said.
According to CNN, the snipers were earlier brought in by helicopter and dropped into the ocean behind the Bainbridge.
The fourth pirate surrendered, Gortney said, adding that the US Department of Justice was “working out the details” on how and where to prosecute him.
US media described the surviving pirate as possibly being 16 years old.
Although the US government’s policy is to not negotiate with pirates, Gortney acknowledged that US officials were engaged in a “deliberate hostage negotiation process” with the pirate aboard the USS Bainbridge.
Phillips, who was unharmed, was taken aboard the USS Bainbridge then flown to the assault ship USS Boxer, where he was “in good health.” He called his family in the United States and received a medical checkup.
In Washington, Obama — who had been publicly silent on the hostage crisis — said in a statement that he was “very pleased” with Phillips’ rescue, an event he called “a welcome relief to his family and his crew.”
The United States remains “resolved” to combat piracy off the Somali coast, Obama said.
The 20-crew Maersk Alabama had been bound for Mombasa, Kenya, carrying provisions for the UN World Food Program, including 4,097 tonnes of soybean and corn and 990 tonnes of cooking oil for Somalia, Uganda and Kenya, an agency official told AFP.
It docked safely in the Kenyan port Saturday and crew members were seen celebrating after hearing of their captain’s rescue, shouting and popping open champagne bottles. The crew stayed aboard as FBI agents investigated the ship considered a crime scene.
The US operation came only two days after French commandos stormed a yacht where other Somali pirates were holding two French couples and a child. The child’s father was killed in the operation.
The pirates, who had reportedly demanded two million dollars in ransom, had warned against using force to rescue Phillips.
“The Americans have played the same trick that the French troops did because we lost contact with our friends this afternoon,” Abdi Garad, head of the Somali pirate group that held Phillips, told AFP.
Garad said the pirates had dropped their ransom demand and were asking for Phillips to be moved onto a Greek ship that had been hijacked by the group.
The four surviving French hostages freed by French special forces on Friday arrived back in Paris on Sunday.
The yacht’s owner, Florent Lemacon, was killed in the raid along with two pirates. Three other Somalis were taken prisoner.
His widow, Chloe Lemacon, their three-year-old son Colin and two friends were flown to a military airport near Paris.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin has said he could not rule out that Lemacon was killed by French fire.
Meanwhile other pirates were sailing an Italian tugboat and its 16-member crew towards the Somali coastline after it was hijacked Saturday, pirate sources said.
The Buccaneer’s crew comprises 10 Italians, five Romanians and a Croat, spokesman Claudio Bartolotti told AFP from the headquarters of Micoperi Marine Contractors, in Ravenna, Italy.
A pirate told AFP on condition of anonymity that the Italian boat was heading toward Las Qorey on the Somali coast of the Gulf of Aden.