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Captain freed after snipers kill Somali pirates

In a daring high-seas rescue, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed the American sea captain who had offered himself as a hostage to save his crew.
Image: Crew members of the American container ship Maersk Alabama speak to the media
After hearing that their captain had been rescued, crew members of the Maersk Alabama speak to the media in Mombasa, Kenya, on Monday.Anthony Mjuguna / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News and news services

In a daring high-seas rescue, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed the American sea captain who had offered himself as a hostage to save his crew.

The operation was a victory for the world's most powerful military but angry pirates vowed Monday to retaliate.

Those threats raised fears for the safety of some 230 foreign sailors still held hostage in more than a dozen ships anchored off the coast of lawless Somalia.

"From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (the hostages)," Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old pirate, told the Associated Press from one of Somalia's piracy hubs, Eyl. "(U.S. forces have) become our No. 1 enemy."

News of Capt. Richard Phillips' rescue caused his crew in Kenya to break into wild cheers and brought tears to the eyes of those in Phillips' hometown of Underhill, Vt., half a world away from the Indian Ocean drama.

A statement from Phillips' wife Andrea was read at a news conference in Vermont on Monday. She said the hardest part for her was not knowing what her husband was enduring. She said she is proud of her husband and thanks everyone for giving her "the strength to be strong for Richard."

In Washington, President Barack Obama on Monday said Phillips' "safety has been our principal concern."

In a sharp warning to pirates off Somalia, Obama added: "I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks."

"We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise, and we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes," the president said.

Earlier Monday, six mortar shells were fired toward the airport in the Somali capital of Mogadishu as a plane carrying a U.S. congressman took off, an airport employee at the control tower said.

New Jersey Democrat Donald Payne had met with Somalia’s president and prime minister for a one-day visit to discuss piracy and security issues. The airport staffer said Payne’s plane took off safely and none of the mortar shells landed in the airport.

Phillips' whereabouts?
Meantime, Pentagon sources told NBC News that the current plan is to reunite Phillips with his 19-man crew from the Maersk Alabama in the Kenyan city of Mombassa.

Phillips is still on the U.S. Navy ship Boxer, and it's not clear exactly when he will be take to the Kenyan port city. Pentagon officials say there's no concern over Phillips security despite pirates threats to seek retribution.

From Mombasa, it's believed Phillips and his crew will fly back to the United States aboard a plane chartered by Maersk Line Lmtd., which owns the Alabama. 

The stunning resolution to a five-day standoff came Sunday in a daring nighttime assault in choppy seas after pirates had agreed to let the USS Bainbridge tow their powerless lifeboat out of rough water.

Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said Phillips, 53, was tied up and in "imminent danger" of being killed because a pirate on the lifeboat held an AK-47 assault rifle to the back of his head.

In an interview with NBC's TODAY show, Gortney said it took only three shots to kill the three pirates.

Interviewed Monday from Bahrain, Gortney said the take-down happened shortly after the hostage-takers were observed by sailors aboard the USS Bainbridge "with their heads and shoulders exposed."

Gortney described the snipers as "extremely, extremely well-trained." He said the firing by the snipers was ordered by the captain of the Bainbridge after the pirates "exposed themselves" to attack.

U.S. Defense officials said snipers got the go-ahead to fire after one pirate held an AK-47 close to Phillips’ back. Two other pirates popped their heads up out of the lifeboat, giving snipers three clear targets from the Bainbridge, one official said.

Military officials Monday described the snipers' operation as remarkable — firing at a small lifeboat 25 yards away at night and from the stern of a ship on rolling waters.

The SEALS arrived on the scene by parachuting from their aircraft into the sea, and were picked up by the Bainbridge, a senior U.S. official said.

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.

In a move that surprised the pirates, the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama had put up a fight Wednesday when pirates boarded the ship. Until then, Somali pirates had become used to encountering no resistance once they boarded a ship in search of million-dollar ransoms.

Escalation on the high seas
Yet Sunday's blow to their lucrative activities is unlikely to stop pirates from threatening one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, simply because of the size of the vast area stretching from the Gulf of Aden and the coast of Somalia.

In fact, some say it may provoke retaliatory attacks against other hostages.

"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.

A Somali pirate agreed.

"Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying," Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the Somali town of Gaan, told The Associated Press on Monday. "We will retaliate (for) the killings of our men."

As dramatic as each hijacking is, Somali pirates still have only attacked a small fraction of the 20,000 ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden each year. Going around Africa to bypass the pirate-infested gulf can rack up massive costs and add up to two weeks to the voyage.

The drama surrounding Phillips and his ship — the first American taken hostage in the Gulf of Aden — has made headlines around the world, pitting a lone captain held by pirates on a tiny, drifting boat surrounded by U.S. warships.

The pirates still hold about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the piracy watchdog International Maritime Bureau. Hostages are from Bulgaria, China, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, the Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Tuvalu and Ukraine, among other countries.

Vilma de Guzman, whose husband is one of 23 Filipino sailors held hostage since Nov. 10 on chemical tanker MT Stolt Strength, feared Phillips' rescue may endanger the lives of other hostages.

"The pirates might vent their anger on them," she said. "Those released are lucky, but what about those who remain captive?"

She also criticized world media for focusing so much on the U.S. captain but giving little attention to other hostages.

Phillips was not hurt in several minutes of gunfire Sunday 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 by phone to Maersk Line Limited President and CEO John Reinhart.

With news of the rescue, Phillips' 17,000-ton ship, which docked with his 19 crew members Saturday in Mombasa, Kenya, erupted into wild cheers. Some waved an American flag and one fired a bright red flare in celebration.

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

Captain 'absolutely elated'
Chief mate Shane Murphy said he spoke to Phillips by telephone Monday. “He’s absolutely elated and he could not be prouder of us for doing everything we were trained to do,” Murphy said.

The ship had been carrying food aid bound for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda when the ordeal began Wednesday hundreds of miles off Somalia's eastern coast. As the pirates clambered aboard and shot in the air, Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men.

Phillips was then taken hostage in an enclosed lifeboat that was soon shadowed by three U.S. warships and a helicopter. Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired into the water, according to U.S. Defense Department officials.

The surviving fourth pirate was in military custody, but FBI spokesman John Miller said that would change as the situation became "more of a criminal issue than a military issue."

Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said his country had not received any request from the United States to try the captured pirate, but would "consider it on its own merit."

When the United States captured pirates in 2006, Kenya agreed to try them. Ten pirates were convicted and are serving prison sentences of seven years each.

Worried residents of Harardhere, another Somali pirate stronghold, gathered in the street Monday to discuss possible repercussions.

"We fear 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, a clothing store owner, told the AP by telephone.