MOMBASA, Kenya — U.S. Navy snipers opened fire and killed three pirates holding an American captain at gunpoint, delivering the skipper unharmed and ending a five-day high-seas hostage drama on Easter Sunday.
Capt. Richard Phillips was in “imminent danger” of being killed before snipers shot the pirates in an operation authorized by President Barack Obama, said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
He said the pirates were armed with AK-47s and small-caliber pistols and were pointing the rifles at the captain when the commander of the nearby USS Bainbridge gave the order to open fire.
Gortney said the White House had given “very clear guidance and authority” to take action if Phillips’ life was in danger.
Phillips’ 19-member crew, who said they had escaped after he offered himself as a hostage, erupted in cheers aboard their ship docked in Mombasa, Kenya.
Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vt., 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.
“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, the company head told reporters. A photo released by the Navy showed Phillips unharmed and shaking hands with the commanding officer of the Bainbridge
Obama said Phillips had courage that was “a model for all Americans” and he was pleased about the rescue, adding that the United States needs help from other countries to deal with the threat of piracy and to hold pirates accountable.
The Defense Department twice asked Obama for permission to use military force to rescue Phillips, most recently late Friday evening, U.S. officials said. On Saturday morning, Obama signed off on the Pentagon’s request, as he had a day earlier, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The Navy said Phillips was freed at 7:19 p.m. local time. He was taken aboard the Norfolk, Va.-based Bainbridge and then flown to the San Diego-based USS Boxer for the medical exam, 5th Fleet spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said.
Gortney said Richard Phillips was found to be in good health and suffered no apparent injuries despite being “tied up inside the lifeboat” over much of the ordeal. The USS Boxer was in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, Christensen said.
U.S. officials said a fourth pirate had surrendered and 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.”
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 two bright red flares 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.
Crew members said their ordeal had begun Wednesday 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. The pirates were believed armed with pistols and AK-47 assault rifles. On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the five hostages was killed.
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,” Murphy said. “If not for his incredible personal sacrifice, this kidnapping and act of terror could have turned out much worse.”
Murphy said both his family and Phillips’ “can now celebrate a joyous Easter together.”
“This was an incredible team effort, and I am extremely proud of the tireless efforts of all the men and women who made this rescue possible” said Vice Adm. Gortney in a statement.
He called Phillips and his crew “heroic.”
Talks to free Phillips 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.
A government official and others in Somalia with knowledge of the situation had reported hours earlier that negotiations for Phillips’ release had broken down.
Three U.S. warships were within easy reach of the lifeboat on Saturday. 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.
“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.”
Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old pirate, said that the killing of the three pirates was “a painful experience.”
“This is unfortunate action and our friends should have done more to kill the captain before they were killed. This will be a good lesson for us,” Habeb told the AP from one of Somalia’s piracy hubs, Eyl.
Residents of Harardhere, another 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 AP by telephone.
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 Saturday, 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 district commissioner of the central Mudug region said talks on freeing Phillips had gone on all day Saturday, with clan elders from his area talking by satellite telephone and through a translator with Americans, but collapsed late Saturday night.
Phillips’ crew of 19 American sailors reached safe harbor in Kenya’s northeast port of Mombasa about the same time under guard of U.S. Navy Seals, exhilarated by their freedom but mourning the absence of Phillips.
Pirates are holding about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based piracy watchdog International Maritime Bureau. Hostages are from Bulgaria, China, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, the Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Tuvalu and Ukraine, among other countries.
A spokesman for the German anti-piracy operation told the AP that the U.S. did not give any clue as to its plans in regard to the ship captain.
He had no details on the fate of the German freighter Hansa Stavanger, which was captured earlier this month or on the fate of its 24 crew of five Germans, three Russians, two Ukrainians, two Filipinos and 12 Tuvalu residents.