How Navy snipers saved captain
The lifeboat containing the tied-up U.S. ship captain and Somali pirates had been bobbing in the water for five days, stalked by a small...
MOMBASA, Kenya — The lifeboat containing the tied-up U.S. ship captain and Somali pirates had been bobbing in the water for five days, stalked by a small flotilla of Navy warships.
No end to the standoff was in sight. Efforts to negotiate the captain's release were going nowhere.
Quietly, the White House had laid down rules of engagement for officers on the destroyer USS Bainbridge: If the captain's life is in imminent danger, attack.
At the end of the fifth day, the waters in the Gulf of Aden dark and choppy, the Americans on the Bainbridge peered at the lifeboat and saw one of the pirates aim his AK-47 at the captain's back.
The lifeboat was about 25 to 30 yards away and under tow by the Bainbridge, after the pirates had accepted the help to move the powerless lifeboat.
Navy snipers on the destroyer's fantail took aim at the pirates' heads and shoulders. The commander gave the split-second order: Fire.
All three pirates were killed. A fourth who had surrendered earlier was being detained and could face trial in the United States.
The captain, 53-year-old Richard Phillips, of Underhill, Vt., was rescued unharmed and taken aboard the Norfolk, Va.-based Bainbridge. He was flown to the San Diego-based USS Boxer and was "resting comfortably."
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, running low on fuel, having spent their ammunition and staring at two massive Navy ships armed with guided missiles.
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 Hassan Mohammed Farah, speaking by phone from Haradheere, a Somali coastal town where pirates are known to operate. Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, said discussions were under way with the Justice Department over whether the man taken into custody could be tried in a U.S. court.
The saga began Wednesday, when the pirates attempted to hijack the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, a container ship on its way to deliver food aid for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda. It was another in a string of pirate attacks this year off Somalia, Africa's most anarchic nation, with a coastline the length of California and no military force to police it.
Crew members said they saw pirates scrambling into the ship with ropes and hooks from a small boat. 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 then was taken hostage in an enclosed lifeboat soon shadowed by three U.S. warships and a helicopter in a standoff that grew by the day.
The captain jumped off the lifeboat Friday night and tried to swim for freedom, but was recaptured quickly.
By Saturday, FBI and U.S. military negotiators had persuaded the pirates to allow them to send food, water and even a change of clothes for Phillips, Gortney said.
That effort proved invaluable when one of the captors agreed to come aboard the Bainbridge to negotiate, and enough rapport was built that the warship was given permission to tow the lifeboat when the seas became choppy and potentially dangerous. During that tow, the snipers got a clear view of Phillips' captors, Gortney said.
Two of the captors had poked their heads out of a rear hatch of the lifeboat and the third could be seen through a window in the bow, pointing the rifle at the captain, who was tied up inside the 18-foot lifeboat, senior Navy officials told The New York Times. It took only three shots — one each by snipers firing from a distance at dusk, using night-vision scopes, the officials said.
Within minutes, rescuers slid down ropes from the Bainbridge, climbed aboard the lifeboat and found the three pirates dead. They then untied Phillips.
The Alabama arrived Saturday in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, its original destination. On Sunday, crew members, who have not been permitted formal interviews with reporters, shouted to journalists from the ship that the pirates never had taken control of the vessel.
As soon as the pirates entered the ship's bridge, the crewmen said, Phillips passed control of the vessel to the ship's engine room and disabled the steering mechanism on the bridge.
"He's one of the bravest men I've ever met," one crewman shouted from the stern of the ship, referring to Phillips. "He's a national hero."
But Phillips refused to take credit for the outcome.
"The real heroes are the Navy, the SEALs, those who have brought me home," Phillips said by phone from the Boxer, according to a statement by John Reinhart, CEO of Norfolk, Va.-based Maersk Line, the ship owner.
The 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.
President Obama, who had received regular briefings on the standoff, according to the White House, telephoned Phillips after his release and praised his bravery.
"His courage is a model for all Americans," Obama said in a statement.
The incident was considered to be one of the first tests of how the Obama administration would deal with international terrorism.
Even as the military celebrated Phillips' rescue, however, it remained unclear what the U.S. could do to better protect ships off Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning government since 1991.
A coalition of international navies has deployed warships to patrol the vast waters, but at least 18 hijack attempts have been made in the past three weeks, Gortney said. At least 17 ships and 300 crew members still are being held.
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 well. On Friday, French forces swooped in to release a captured yacht and one of the five French hostages was killed in a firefight.
Compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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