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US Navy rescues captain and kills 3 Somali pirates

By | April 14th 2009


US Navy special forces freed an American ship's captain and killed three Somali pirates holding him hostage in a lifeboat, ending a five-day standoff but drawing vows of revenge from pirates.

Richard Phillips was just one of more than 250 hostages of many nationalities being held by pirates who have seized dozens of vessels, from oil tankers to luxury yachts, in recent months.

Helicopters once again flew over pirate bases near Eyl on the Somali coast overnight after his rescue.

"They killed our friends on the lifeboat and we thought helicopters would bomb us in Eyl last night," a pirate in Eyl, who called himself Farah, told Reuters.

"We were mourning for dead friends and then roaring planes came -- grief-upon-grief. America has become our new enemy."

The U.S. Navy said Phillips' life was in danger when snipers aboard a U.S. destroyer shot his captors on Sunday, freeing him unharmed and killing three of four pirates who had taken him after trying to seize his vessel. The fourth was in custody.

"They were pointing the AK-47s at the captain," Vice Admiral William Gortney, head of the U.S. Naval Central Command, said in a Pentagon briefing from Bahrain.

"The on-scene commander took it as the captain was in imminent danger and then made that decision and he had the authorities to make that decision and he had seconds to make that decision."

Philips tried to escape on Friday, and tense hostage talks had been under way as the lifeboat drifted, circled by US warships, some 20 miles (32 km) from the Somali coast.

President Barack Obama granted the Pentagon's request for standing authority to use appropriate force, Gortney said.

Phillips, captain of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama container ship, contacted his family after the rescue, received a medical check, and was resting aboard the USS Boxer.

Crew Jubilant

His crew set off flares, hoisted an American flag and jumped for joy at the news of their captain's rescue.

They called on Obama to take the lead in combating piracy.

"America has to be in the forefront to put an end to this crisis ... This crew was lucky to be out of it with everyone alive. We are not going to be that lucky again," first nautical officer Shane Murphy told reporters in Kenya's Mombasa port.

Phillips, was the first American taken by pirates who have plundered ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean for years.

An Italian tugboat hijacked in the Gulf of Aden arrived at Las Qoray on the north Somali coast, residents said.

"Well-armed pirates on the tugboat ordered us to keep away from areas near them. Two of the pirates came down to town to persuade residents to allow them to stay but I don't know the outcome," fisherman Jama Feysal told Reuters by phone.

The tug, carrying 10 Italians, 5 Romanians and a Croatian, was seized on Saturday. Mohamed Salah Dubeys, a Somaliland military commander, said the pirates were also holding two Egyptian ships with 24 other hostages in the area.

Obama, spared another thorny foreign policy crisis to add to his problems with the U.S. economic meltdown and the war in Afghanistan, vowed to curb rampant piracy.

"To achieve that goal, we must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes," he said in a statement.

US congressman Donald Payne flew to Mogadishu on Monday, making what is believed to be the first visit to the Somali capital by a senior American politician since 1994.

Pirates Vow Revenge

Somali pirates vowed to avenge the shooting of their comrades, as well as a French military assault to rescue a yacht on Friday in which two pirates were killed and three captured.

"The French and the Americans will regret starting this killing. We do not kill, but take only ransom. We shall do something to anyone we see as French or American from now," Hussein, a pirate, told Reuters by satellite phone.

The Maersk Alabama, carrying food aid for Somalis, was attacked far out in the Indian Ocean on Wednesday, but its 20 American crew regained control. Phillips volunteered to go with the pirates in a lifeboat in exchange for the crew's safety.

"The actions of Captain Phillips and the civilian mariners of Maersk-Alabama were heroic," Gortney said. "Captain Phillips selflessly put his life in the hands of these armed criminals in order to protect his crew."

Friends of the pirates told Reuters they wanted $2 million.

Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the Mombasa-based East African Seafarers Assistance Program, said the rescue would change the stakes in future pirate attacks.

"This is a big wake-up to the pirates. It raises the stakes. Now they may be more violent, like the pirates of old," he said.

Eyl local elder Ismail Haji Ahmed told Reuters by phone from the coastal village, a notorious pirate base: "Roaring helicopters terrified us so much that no one slept last night.

"If we could flee from Eyl, the planes could bomb the pirates. We were confined to our houses and could not even go to latrines."

So far, pirates have generally treated hostages well, sometimes roasting goat meat for them and even letting them phone loved ones. The worst violence has been the occasional beating. No hostages are known to have been killed by pirates.

- Reuters

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US muscle won't deter hardcore Somali pirates
The US rescue of an American sailor is unlikely to deter the most committed Somali pirates and could make future hijackings more violent, complicating efforts to tame the lawless seas off the Horn of Africa.