U.S. Captain Freed, 3 Pirates Killed, 1 Captured in Swift Firefight off African Coast


captainAn American ship captain was freed unharmed today and three of the pirates who held him for days in a lifeboat off the Somali coast were killed in a operation by U.S. Navy Seals that was approved by President Barack Obama. Capt. Richard Phillips’ crew, who said they had escaped after he offered himself as a hostage, erupted in cheers aboard their ship docked in Mombasa, Kenya. Some waved an

American flag and fired a flare in celebration.

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet said Phillips was resting comfortably on a U.S. warship after receiving a medical exam.

U.S. officials said Obama ordered the Defense Department to use military resources to rescue Phillips. Obama said the captain had courage that was “a model for all Americans.” The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not yet authorized to disclose the president’s decision-making process.

captain-2Obama said he was pleased that Phillips was rescued, adding that the United States needs help from other countries to deal with the threat of piracy and to hold pirates accountable.

The Navy said Phillips was freed at 7:19 p.m. local time. He was taken aboard the Norfolk, Virginia-based USS Bainbridge and then flown to the San Diego-based USS Boxer for the medical exam, 5th Fleet spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said.

Christensen said Phillips was now “resting comfortably.” The USS Boxer was in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, Christensen said.

The U.S. did not say if Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, was receiving medical care because he had been injured or if he was being treated for exposure after his ordeal.

U.S. officials said a pirate who had been involved in negotiations to free Phillips but who was not on the lifeboat during the rescue was in military custody. FBI spokesman John Miller said that would change as the situation became “more of a criminal issue than a military issue.”

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said prosecutors were looking at “evidence and other issues” to determine whether to bring a case in the United States. The pirate could face a life sentence if convicted, officials said.

A spokeswoman for the Phillips family, Alison McColl, said Phillips and his wife, Andrea, spoke by phone shortly after he was freed.

“I think you can all imagine their joy and what a happy moment that was for them,” McColl said outside of the Phillips home in Underhill. “They’re all just so happy and relieved. Andrea wanted me to tell the nation that all of your prayers and good wishes have paid off because Capt. Phillips is safe.”

When Phillips’ crew heard the news aboard their ship in the port of Mombasa, they placed an American flag over the rail of the top of the Maersk Alabama and whistled and pumped their fists in the air. Crew fired a bright red flare into the sky from the ship.

“We made it!” said crewman ATM Reza, pumping his fist in the air.

“He managed to be in a 120-degree oven for days, it’s amazing,” said another of about a dozen crew members who came out to talk to reporters. He said the crew found out the captain was released because one of the sailors had been talking to his wife on the phone.

Capt. Joseph Murphy, the father of second-in-command Shane Murphy, thanked Phillips for his bravery.

“Our prayers have been answered on this Easter Sunday. I have made it clear throughout this terrible ordeal that my son and our family will forever be indebted to Capt. Phillips for his bravery,” Murphy said. “If not for his incredible personal sacrifice, this kidnapping and act of terror could have turned out much worse.”

In the written statement, Murphy said both his family and Phillips’ “can now celebrate a joyous Easter together.”

Terry Aiken, 66, who lives across the street from the Phillips house, fought back tears as he reacted to the news.

“I’m very, very happy,” Aiken said. “I can’t be happier for him and his family.”

A government official and others in Somalia with knowledge of the situation had reported hours earlier that negotiations for Phillips’ release had broken down.

Talks to free him began Thursday with the captain of the USS Bainbridge talking to the pirates under instruction from FBI hostage negotiators on board the U.S. destroyer. The pirates had threatened to kill Phillips if attacked.

Three U.S. warships were within easy reach of the lifeboat yesterday. The U.S. Navy had assumed the pirates would try to get their hostage to shore, where they could have hidden him on Somalia’s lawless soil and been in a stronger position to negotiate a ransom.

Maersk Line said before news of the rescue broke that “the U.S. Navy had sight contact” of Phillips-apparently when the pirates opened the hatches.

“The Somali government wanted the drama to end in a peaceful way, but any one who is involved in this latest case had the choice to use violence or other means,” Abdulkhadir Walayo, the prime minister’s spokesman, told The Associated Press. “Any way, we see it will be a good lesson for the pirates or any one else involved in this dirty business.”

Residents of Harardhere, a port and pirate stronghold, were gathering in the streets after news of the captain’s release, saying they fear pirates may now retaliate against some of the 200 hostages they still hold.

“We fear more that any revenge taken by the pirates against foreign nationals could bring more attacks from the foreign navies, perhaps on our villages,” Abdullahi Haji Jama, who owns a clothes store in Harardhere, told The Associated Press by telephone.

The district commissioner of the central Mudug region said talks on freeing Phillips had gone on all day yesterday, with clan elders from his area talking by satellite telephone and through a translator with Americans, but collapsed late last night.

Two other Somalis, one involved in the negotiations and another in contact with the pirates, also said the talks collapsed because of the U.S. insistence that the pirates be arrested and brought to justice.

Phillips’ crew of 19 American sailors reached safe harbor in Kenya’s northeast port of Mombasa last night under guard of U.S. Navy Seals, exhilarated by their freedom but mourning the absence of Phillips.

Crew members said their ordeal had begun with the Somali pirates hauling themselves up from a small boat bobbing on the surface of the Indian Ocean far below.

As the pirates shot in the air, Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members said.

Phillips was then held hostage in an enclosed lifeboat that was closely watched by U.S. warships and a helicopter in an increasingly tense standoff. On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the five hostages was killed.

Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the unfolding operations.

Early yesterday, the pirates holding Phillips in the lifeboat fired a few shots at a small U.S. Navy vessel that had approached, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The official said the U.S. sailors did not return fire, the Navy vessel turned away and no one was hurt. He said the vessel had not been attempting a rescue. The pirates are believed armed with pistols and AK-47 assault rifles.

Pirates are holding about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based piracy watchdog International Maritime Bureau.

{AP, News Agencies/Matzav.com Newscenter}