Snipers kill three pirates, free US ship captain (Lead)

April 13th, 2009 - 11:31 am ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama Washington, April 13 (DPA) US Navy snipers shot dead three Somali pirates who were holding the captain of a US-operated cargo ship hostage, ending a brazen standoff in the Indian Ocean on Easter Sunday.
Snipers on the USS Bainbridge, part of a coalition force based in the Gulf of Aden that arrived on the scene Thursday, could see the heads and shoulders of two pirates while the third was pointing an AK-47 at captain Richard Phillips’ shoulders, said Vice Admiral William E. Gortney of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.

“The on-scene commander determined that the captain was in imminent danger. He had seconds to make that decision,” Gortney told reporters.

US President Barack Obama had issued a standing order for “decisive action” to be taken if Phillips’ life was in danger.

There were earlier reports that Navy Seals stormed the lifeboat after Phillips jumped overboard, but Gortney couldn’t confirm if the captain had moved out of the way as the snipers took perfect aim from the Bainbridge’s fan tail.

The snipers fired just three shots, killing all three pirates. “We pay a lot for their training, and we got a good return on our investment,” Gortney said.

Phillips, 53, was captain of the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton cargo ship carrying food aid that was seized by pirates Wednesday. While the unarmed crew quickly retook the ship, Phillips ended up being held on the Alabama’s lifeboat by the pirates.

Phillips was uninjured and in good health. “I’m just the byline. The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home,” Phillips said by telephone to Maersk CEO John Reinhart.

The Bainbridge was towing the 18-foot lifeboat to calmer and safer waters. “The lifeboat was about 25-30 metres from the Bainbridge and the sea conditions were deteriorating,” said Gortney.

The pirates had allowed the US Navy to send them and their hostage water and food on an inflatable boat, while one pirate was aboard the Bainbridge and was involved in the hostage negotiations.

“There was a demand for ransom, but I’m not sure of the exact amount. To make their point, they were threatening to kill the captain. US government policy is not to negotiate,” Gortney told reporters.

Phillips was transferred to the Bainbridge and later to the USS Boxer, where the captive pirate was also being held. The Navy said they would have discussions with Somali authorities to hand over the remains of the three killed pirates.

The fate of the captured pirate was uncertain and the Navy was in talks with the US Justice Department. It wasn’t immediately clear whether he would be handed over to Kenyan authorities.

“I am very pleased that Captain Phillips has been rescued. His safety has been our principal concern, and I know this is a welcome relief to his family and his crew,” Obama said.

“We remain resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this 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,” the White House statement said.

Gortney confirmed that the Alabama crew had complained of piracy threats 24 hours before the pirates boarded the ship armed with automatic weapons. In the past three weeks alone there were 18 piracy attempts in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali basin, the Navy said.

“The ultimate solution for piracy is on land,” Gortney said. “Piracy stems from lawlessness, lack of governance and economic instability.”

In 2008, pirates seized over 40 vessels in and around the Gulf of Aden and collected tens of millions of dollars in ransom, prompting the international community to send warships to the region.

Around 15 warships from the European Union, a coalition task force and individual countries such as Russia, the US, India and China patrol an area of about 2.85 million sq km.

However, the pirates are now venturing farther into the Indian Ocean off the south-east coast of Somalia to avoid the international patrols.

The Alabama was brought to the Kenyan port of Mombasa Saturday night, where some crew members, dressed in blue overalls and helmets, defied orders from the Federal Bureau of Investigation not to discuss the hijacking and shouted out to waiting journalists.

The crew said the pirates appeared on a small boat and used grappling hooks to board the ship, firing shots in the air as they came.

Phillips then reportedly gave himself up to the pirates in order to safeguard his crew, something that second mate Ken Quinn said made him a “hero”.

The Bainbridge received a message from Phillips’ wife Andrea, before he was rescued: “Richard, your family loves you, your family is praying for you, your family is saving a chocolate Easter egg for you - unless your son eats it first.”

Once free and declared medically fit, Phillips told his son not to touch the Easter egg as he would be coming home soon.

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