With Somali pirates pointing an automatic rifle at a hostage American ship captain, U.S. Navy sharpshooters opened fire Sunday, killing the pirates and ending an extraordinary five-day standoff that marked the first seizure of a U.S. vessel by pirates on the high seas in at least two centuries.
Three pirates were killed, the Pentagon said. The captain, 53-year-old Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt., was rescued unharmed and taken aboard a U.S. warship. A fourth pirate who had surrendered earlier was detained, and could face trial in the United States.
Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, said Navy SEAL snipers perched at the back of the USS Bainbridge — a guided-missile destroyer floating about 30 yards from the 28-foot lifeboat where Phillips was being held — opened fire on the pirates when one of them pointed an AK-47 rifle at Phillips' back. The powerless lifeboat was being towed by the Bainbridge at the time to move it out of rough water, he said.
The SEALs felt Phillips' life was in "imminent danger," Gortney said. The White House said President Barack Obama had given the Pentagon a standing order to use force if necessary to save Phillips' life.
The military "took it that the pirate was ready to use that weapon" and opened fire, Gortney said.
Obama was told that Phillips had been rescued 11 minutes after the shots were fired, according to Pentagon and White House chronologies of events.
According to Somalis with knowledge of the discussions, the pirates, who at one time had demanded $2 million for Phillips' release, had grown desperate with their situation — adrift under a searing sun in waters infested with sharks, staring at two massive Navy ships armed with guided missiles.
The rescue marked a dramatic conclusion to a saga that began Wednesday, when the pirates attempted to hijack an American-owned container ship, the Maersk Alabama, which was delivering food aid to Africa. Phillips surrendered himself to safeguard his 20-man crew, the crew members said, and the pirates escaped in one of the Alabama's lifeboats with Phillips.
Phillips deflected any praise after his rescue Sunday. "I'm just the byline. The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home," he told Maersk Line Limited President and CEO John Reinhart.
The attack on the Alabama was another in a surge of pirate attacks this year off the coast of Somalia, Africa's most anarchic nation, with a coastline the length of California and no military force to police it. The rescue is unlikely to do much to quell the growing pirate threat, which has transformed one of the world's busiest shipping lanes into one of its most dangerous. It also risked provoking retaliatory attacks.
Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the Somali town of Gaan, said: "Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying," he said. "We will retaliate (for) the killings of our men."
Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old self-proclaimed pirate, said: "From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill" the hostages.
"Now they became our No. 1 enemy," Habeb said of U.S. forces.
The Alabama arrived Saturday in Mombasa, its original destination, where crew members described Phillips as a hero.
The Navy released a photograph of Phillips after his rescue. He appeared healthy despite spending more than 100 hours adrift in 110-degree-plus temperatures with limited food and water.
Obama, who had been receiving been regular briefings on the standoff, called Phillips after his release and praised his bravery.
"I share the country's admiration for the bravery of Capt. Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew," Obama said.