Nairobi, Kenya Navy Seal snipers on the fantail of a destroyer cut down three Somali pirates in a lifeboat and rescued an American sea captain on Easter Sunday. The surprise nighttime assault in choppy seas ended a five-day standoff between a team of rogue gunmen and the world’s most powerful military.
It was a stunning conclusion to an Indian Ocean odyssey that began when 53-year-old freighter Capt. Richard Phillips was taken hostage Wednesday by pirates who tried to hijack the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama. The Vermont native was held on a tiny lifeboat that began drifting precariously toward Somalia’s anarchic, gun-plagued shores.
The operation, personally approved by President Barack Obama, quashed fears the saga could drag on for months and marked a victory for the U.S., which for days seemed powerless to resolve the crisis despite massing helicopter-equipped warships at the scene.
Negotiations with the three pirates were growing heated, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said.
One of them pointed an AK-47 at the back of Phillips, who was tied up and in “imminent danger” of being killed when the commander of the nearby USS Bainbridge made the split-second decision to order his men to shoot, Gortney said. Navy snipers took aim at the pirates’ heads and shoulders, he said.
The lifeboat was about 25-30 yards away and was being towed by the Bainbridge at the time, he said. The pirates had agreed to the tow to move the powerless lifeboat out of rough water.
A fourth pirate surrendered after boarding the Bainbridge earlier in the day and could face life in a U.S. prison. He had been seeking medical attention for a wound to his hand and was negotiating with U.S. officials on conditions for Phillips’ release, military officials said.
The rescue was a dramatic blow to the pirates who have preyed on international shipping and hold more than a dozen ships with about 230 foreign sailors. But it is unlikely to do much to quell the region’s growing pirate threat, which has transformed one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes into one of its most dangerous. It also risked provoking retaliatory attacks.
“This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it,” said Gortney, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding the Greek ship anchored in the Somali town of Gaan, said: “Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying,” he told The Associated Press. “We will retaliate (for) the killings of our men.”
Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old self-proclaimed pirate, told the AP from one of Somalia’s piracy hubs, Eyl, that: “From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (the hostages).”
“Now they became our No. 1 enemy,” Habeb said of U.S. forces.
Phillips was not hurt in several minutes of gunfire and the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet said he was resting comfortably on a U.S. warship after receiving a medical exam.
Aboard the Bainbridge, sailors passed along a message from Andrea Phillips to her husband: “Richard, your family loves you, your family is praying for you, and your family is saving a chocolate Easter egg for you, unless your son eats it first.”
Phillips himself deflected any praise.
“I’m just the byline. The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home,” Phillips said.