By Stephanie McCrummen and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 13, 2009
MOMBASA, Kenya, April 12 -- An American captain held hostage for five days by Somali pirates in a lifeboat adrift in the Indian Ocean was rescued unharmed Sunday in a surprise U.S. military operation in which snipers killed three pirates with the captain tied up just feet away, American military officials said. A fourth pirate was in U.S. custody.
The snipers, positioned near the fantail of the destroyer USS Bainbridge less than 30 yards from the lifeboat, fired within seconds after a commander determined that Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, was in "imminent danger" as one of the pirates aimed an AK-47 at his back, military officials said. President Obama had issued a standing order that the military was to act if the captain's life was in immediate jeopardy, said Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of the Fifth Fleet.
After bobbing since Wednesday in the stifling lifeboat cabin, where temperatures topped 100 degrees, Phillips was whisked to the Bainbridge. He then showered and changed into clean clothes, Gortney said, adding that the captain is "in good health."
Phillips spoke to his wife in Vermont, and soon the news was being announced inside his ship, the Maersk Alabama, which docked here Saturday night with its American crew, minus their captain. Sailors came out on deck and whooped for joy, waving a U.S. flag, sounding the ship's horn three times and firing two flares across the starry night sky.
"He's one of the bravest men I ever met," one of the crew members said of Phillips, who boarded the lifeboat with the pirates to get them to leave after the crew had regained control of the ship. "He's a national hero."
The U.S. military operation ended a tense, five-day standoff in which four pirates armed with pistols and AK-47s ultimately faced off with a small American armada in the Indian Ocean off Somalia's coast. Somali pirates who had pulled off the first seizure of an American crewman in recent memory were soon staring at the hulls of the USS Halyburton, a guided-missile frigate equipped with helicopters, and the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship with missile launchers, attack planes and a crew of 1,000, which had joined the Bainbridge.
U.S. military officials acknowledged Sunday that the killing of the three pirates could worsen the problem, an outcome that shipping companies have sought to avoid.
"This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it," Gortney said.
Piracy off Somalia's anarchic coast is hardly a new problem, but it has been escalating for years. Fishermen complaining of widespread illegal fishing in their waters began by seizing trawlers as an act of defiance but soon found they had stumbled onto a lucrative business. Armed with Global Positioning System devices, satellite phones and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the pirates have earned millions in ransom for vessels such as the Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker that is the largest ship seized in history.
Somalia's fragile transitional government, struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency with ties to al-Qaeda, can barely control any part of the capital, Mogadishu, much less a piracy epidemic rooted along its shores, where the multimillion-dollar business has turned sleepy fishing villages into mini-boomtowns.
Foreign governments have sent a flotilla of naval ships to the busy Gulf of Aden, but pirates have simply moved their operations south and further out to sea, often using captured fishing vessels called mother ships to launch attacks.
The closest naval ship was 300 nautical miles away when the Maersk Alabama was attacked Wednesday.
"We simply do not have enough resources to cover all of those areas," Gortney said.
Pirates are holding more than a dozen ships and more than 200 hostages.
Obama said in a statement Sunday that the United States is resolved to halt the rise of piracy in the region.
"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," Obama said.
The pirates had apparently been tracking the Maersk Alabama for days and boarded it Wednesday, tossing ropes with grappling hooks over the side. The details of what happened next are sketchy, but after a five-hour ordeal in which some crew members forced one pirate into the engine room and tied him up, the crew persuaded the pirates to leave the ship using its lifeboat.
On Sunday night, one of the crew members said Phillips had gone with the pirates as a good-faith gesture. But the pirates did not follow through on their promise to let him go, and his ordeal began.
On Saturday afternoon, two U.S. helicopters buzzed over the pirate stronghold of Harardhere on the Somali coast, residents said. One helicopter landed for about 10 minutes, bewildering locals and scattering herds of goats and cows.
"I have no idea what is happening," said Laila Arale, a local farmer who sent her sons to sleep elsewhere Sunday night, fearing that the United States might attack Somalia from the air. "I'm scared."
The Bainbridge had offered to tow the lifeboat to calmer waters as the seas grew rougher, and the pirates, seeming worn down, agreed, said military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. One pirate with a hand injury effectively gave himself up.
Phillips was by then tied up, having been bound and occasionally beaten by pirates after he tried to escape by jumping off the boat.
The rescue occurred at 7:19 p.m. local time Sunday, the Navy said, and involved dozens of SEALs. With one of the pirates pointing an AK-47 straight at Phillips's back, an on-scene commander gave the SEAL snipers authority to fire.
John Reinhart, president and chief executive of Maersk Line, the ship's owner, spoke with Phillips by phone. Reinhart quoted Phillips as saying that "the real heroes are the Navy, the SEALs, those who have brought me home."
"It's a great day for all of us," Reinhart said at a news conference in Norfolk, Va. "It is truly, truly a wonderful moment."
Scott Tyson reported from Washington. Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Nairobi contributed to this report.