MALINDI, Kenya — 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'd surrendered earlier also was being detained and could face trial in the United States.
Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, in a briefing for reporters, said U.S. Navy SEAL snipers perched at the back of the USS Bainbridge — a guided-missile destroyer floating about 30 yards off 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's back.
The SEALs felt Phillips's life was in "imminent danger," Gortney said. The White House said that President Barack Obama had given the Pentagon a standing order to use force if necessary to save Phillips's life.
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The sharpshooters "took it that the pirate was ready to use that weapon" and opened fire within seconds, Gortney said in a telephone briefing from Bahrain, headquarters of the Fifth Fleet.
President 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's 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, running low on fuel and having spent their ammunition.
A relative of one of the pirates, who said he spoke with the men by satellite phone at about 3 p.m. — four hours before the Navy opened fire — said they "were getting scared" and trying to persuade the Americans to let them go in return for the captain's release.
"They were trying to save their own lives," said the relative, Hassan Mohammed Farah, speaking by phone from Haradheere, a coastal town in central Somalia where pirates are known to operate. "The only thing they could bargain with was the captain, but the Americans would not accept."
The pirates had appealed by satellite phone to other pirate groups to sail captive ships and hostages to the scene of the standoff, to put some pressure on the U.S. forces. But Guled Farah, who belongs to another pirate group that had hijacked a German ship last week, said that the presence of the U.S. vessels scared them off.
"Their little boat was surrounded," Farah said by phone from Haradheere. "We couldn't go to help them, and for that we are sorry."
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. It 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 ship's unarmed, 20-man crew banded together to beat back the pirates, who escaped in one of the Alabama's lifeboats with Phillips, the captain. The Alabama arrived Saturday in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, its original destination, where crew members described Phillips as a hero. One said that Phillips "jumped" on one of the pirates after the pirate was led into the ship's engine room.
On Sunday, crew members, who've not been permitted formal interviews with reporters, shouted to journalists from the ship that the pirates had never taken control of the vessel. They said that as soon as the pirates entered the ship's bridge, Captain Phillips passed control of the vessel to the ship's engine room and disabled the steering mechanism on the bridge.
But Phillips refused to take credit for the outcome of events.
"The real heroes are the Navy, the SEALs, those who have brought me home," Phillips said by phone from the USS Boxer, according to a statement by John Reinhart, the CEO of Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Line, the ship owner.
The U.S. Navy released a photograph of Phillips after his rescue. He appeared healthy despite having spent more than 100 hours adrift in 110-degree-plus temperatures with limited food and water.
Obama, who'd been receiving regular briefings on the standoff, according to the White House, telephoned Phillips after his release and praised his bravery.
"His safety has been our principal concern, and I know this is a welcome relief to his family and his crew," Obama said in a statement.
Even as the military celebrated Phillips's rescue, however, it remained unclear what the United States could do to better protect ships traveling in the waters off of Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning government in nearly two decades and lacks a coast guard or effective police force to rein in piracy.
A coalition of international navies has deployed warships to patrol the vast waters, but there have nevertheless been at least 18 hijack attempts on passing ships in the last three weeks, Gortney said.
At the time of the Alabama hijacking, 16 international navies were patrolling the region but the nearest ship — the USS Bainbridge — was 300 nautical miles away.
The only real deterrence for pirates, who netted tens of millions of dollars in ransoms last year, according to independent experts, is the threat of force. But military interventions often don't end as well as the U.S. operation. On Friday French forces swooped in to release a captured yacht and one of the five French hostages was killed in a firefight with pirates.
"We remain resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this region," Obama said. "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."
A White House chronology of the days since the Alabama was hijacked showed that Obama ordered a review of policy toward piracy within hours of the ship's being seized, though it was not clear Sunday what change in U.S.. policy might be forthcoming.
At least 17 ships and 300 crew members are still being held by Somali pirates.
According to the White House chronology, Obama received at least three written reports daily on Phillips's situation — at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
The White House chronology indicates that Obama first authorized the use of force against the pirates at 8 p.m. EDT on Friday, and that additional orders were given at 9:20 a.m. Saturday.
Obama was briefed on the "action leading to rescue of Captain Phillips" at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, the White House chronology said. That was 11 minutes after Phillips was rescued, according to the Pentagon.
(Youssef reported from Washington. Also contributing were David Lightman, Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor in Washington and special correspondent Ahmednor Mohamed in Mogadishu, Somalia.)
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