Page last updated at 03:16 GMT, Monday, 13 April 2009 04:16 UK

US captain rescued from pirates


Captain Phillips filmed on board a US warship after being rescued

US navy snipers have shot dead three pirates holding a US captain in a boat off Somalia, in a dramatic rescue authorised by President Barack Obama.

They opened fire from a nearby warship as a pirate pointed a gun at the captive, the navy said.

A fourth pirate, who was on a navy ship at the time, surrendered.

Capt Richard Phillips, hailed as a hero for his actions during the hijacking of his vessel last week, was unharmed and has been resting aboard a US warship.

He has spoken to his wife and family back in the US and is said to be looking forward to celebrating Easter when he gets home.

While defending the rescue operation, a navy spokesman acknowledged that the incident might increase the threat from pirates, whose mounting attacks on shipping have been relatively bloodless to date.

Mr Obama said he was very pleased that Capt Phillips had been rescued and that his courage was a "model for all Americans".

Capt Phillips after release

He said he was resolved to deal with the threat of piracy in the region.

'Imminent danger'

Capt Philips was seized by the pirates last Wednesday after his ship the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.

The ship had been carrying food aid bound for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda.

After pirates scrambled aboard using ropes and hooks from a small boat and began shooting in the air, Capt Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members said.

He was then taken hostage in an enclosed lifeboat that was soon shadowed by US warships and a helicopter.

He tried to escape on Thursday night by diving into the sea but was recaptured by the pirates and negotiations broke down on Saturday, the navy says.

At 1919 local time (1619 GMT) the split-second order was taken for the snipers to shoot.

"The on-scene [US navy] commander determined that the captain was in imminent danger," Vice Admiral William Gortney, head of the US Naval Central Command, said in a Pentagon briefing from Bahrain.

An aerial image of the hijacked lifeboat, 9 April
This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it
Vice Adm Gortney

"He had a weapon aimed at him - that would be my interpretation of imminent danger," said Admiral Gortney.

After the pirates were shot, navy personnel sailed to the lifeboat and released Capt Phillips, whom they found tied up inside.

'Model for Americans'

Capt Phillips was initially taken on board the USS Bainbridge, a warship sent to track the pirates holding him, before being flown to the USS Boxer for a medical examination, navy spokesman Lt Nathan Christensen said.

Reading a statement on behalf of Capt Phillips' wife Andrea, a spokeswoman for ship owner Maersk Line Ltd said the family was "happy and relieved".

The head of Maersk praised the captain's behaviour.

He said Capt Phillips had told him: "I'm just the byline, the heroes are the Navy Seals who brought me home."

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At least 15 pirate attacks reported to International Maritime Bureau during March 2009
The 32,500-tonnSources at the ship's owne Malaspina Castle, UK-owned but operated by Italians, seized on 6 April 2009.

Mr Reinhart added that it was time to bring both captain and crew home, and that this would be done "in the next couple of days".

The ship's crew are currently in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, where they celebrated by putting a US flag over the side of the ship, whistling, pumping their fists in the air and firing off a red flare.

'This could escalate'

Reports suggest talks with the pirates stalled on Saturday because US officials insisted that the pirates be arrested and brought to justice.

Admiral Gortney said the military end to the hostage incident might raise the stakes for pirates in the region.

"This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it," he told reporters.

In Eyl, a pirate stronghold on the Somali coast, one self-proclaimed pirate said the US navy had become the "number one enemy".

"From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them [the hostages]," he told the Associated Press by telephone.

Four French citizens, including a three-year-old boy, were freed aboard a yacht by French troops on Friday. The yacht's owner, Florent Lemacon, was killed during the operation along with two pirates.

On Saturday, pirates hijacked a tugboat in the Gulf of Aden. The Buccaneer has 16 crew members on board, 10 of them Italians.

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