Three pirates killed as US rescues kidnapped captain

Wild celebrations among crew after American forces complete daring operation to end sailor's six-day ordeal

US snipers ended a five-day hostage drama on the high seas off Somalia last night as they shot dead three pirates and rescued the American sea captain who had been held captive.

The decision appeared to have been taken after the lifeboat where pirates were holding Capt Richard Phillips drifted closer to the Somali shore. A fourth pirate was reportedly being held aboard a US warship.

Capt Phillips, the 53-year-old captina of the Maersk Alabama, from Vermont, who had assault rifles held to his head before the snipers fired, said: “I’m just the byline. The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home.” A photo released by the Navy showed Capt Phillips unharmed and shaking hands with the commanding officer of the destroyer, USS Bainbridge.

“They were pointing the AK-47s at the captain,” said Vice-Admiral William Gortney. He added that Barack Obama had authorised the use of force to end the five-day standoff.

Upon hearing the news, the crew of the Alabama, now docked in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, celebrated wildly, firing a red flare into the sky and hanging an American flag from the ship’s railing. “We are very happy. He’s a hero,” one crew member shouted from the deck. In America, a spokeswoman for the Phillips family said: “This is truly a happy Easter. All your prayers and wishes have paid off.”

After his rescue, Capt Phillips was said to be resting comfortably on USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, having undergone a medical check-up; he is now expected to be taken to a US base in Djibouti.

It was not clear whether the pirate in custody had been aboard the lifeboat. He had, however, been involved in negotiations brokered by elders from Garacad, 370 miles north of Mogadishu. The US Justice Department said it was considering what charges to bring against him.

Earlier, five US warships and several helicopters shadowed the pirates as they drifted towards the coast. But the closer the lifeboat came to shore, the more likely it was that a military option would be used.

The pirates, who had been demanding safe passage, and according to some sources a $2m (£1.4m) ransom, had been negotiating with US officials by satellite phone, allowing FBI negotiators to speak to Capt Phillips once a day to prove he was still alive. In Virginia, the Alabama’s owners, Maersk Line, said the navy had informed the company it had a sighting of the captain. But negotiations for his release reached a dead end early yesterday morning. Abdi Aziz Aw Yusuf, the Jariban district commissioner who arranged the contact between the US and the elders, said: “The negotiations with American officials have broken down. The reason is American officials wanted to arrest the pirates in nearby Puntland and elders refused the arrest of the pirates.”

The successful rescue will come as a huge relief to American forces in the area, and their international counterparts. The multinational force sent during the past year to patrol the Gulf of Aden, a million square miles of ocean between Somalia and Yemen, has accomplished little so far aside from pushing the pirates further south into the Indian Ocean. Capt Phillips’s death would have been a disastrous conclusion to a situation that had seemed unstable from the beginning.

Abdiwali Ali Tar, the Somali head of a private security firm claiming to act as a coastguard in nearby Puntland, suggested that negotiations had become so drawn out because the pirates were determined to make their way to a safe haven before bargaining in earnest. “Some local elders as well as our company have been involved in the negotiations but things seem to be deadlocked because the pirates want to make sure to be in a safe location first with the captain – either on one of the ships their colleagues hold or in Somali coastal villages – but the Americans will not allow that,” he said.

Local elders dismissed the ransom claims, saying the American sailor would be released in return for the safe passage of their men. But the community leaders ruled out US demands that the four failed hijackers be handed over to authorities in Puntland to face the courts there. That impasse may have led the US forces to the conclusion that, with the pirates getting ever closer to land, their best chance of recovering Capt Phillips alive was to act fast. Had the pirates been allowed to reach the shore, Capt Phillips would have joined more than 285 hostages already being held, along with 15 captured vessels.

The crew of the Alabama had remained on the ship waiting for news about their captain all weekend. Port authorities were ordered to widen the barricaded perimeter around the ship yesterday after reporters succeeded in speaking with several crew members from the shore. From those conversations and other briefings, a more detailed picture of the crew’s ordeal had begun to emerge. It appears the captain ordered the crew to lock themselves in their cabins after four pirates boarded the ship. He then ordered the ship’s engine be cut and offered himself as a hostage.

When the pirates demanded the engines be restarted, one of them accompanied the engineer A T M Reza, from Hartford, Connecticut, to the engine room. Once inside, he said, he stabbed the pirate in the hand with an ice pick then tied him up. He then tried to trade the captive pirate for Capt Phillips, but this attempt failed, and the pirates retook their associate and disembarked on the ship’s lifeboat.

The upsurge in pirate attacks has caused panic among some crews in Mombasa with one container ship captain saying his sailors were threatening to strike rather than set off into pirate-infested waters. An Italian tug boat, hijacked on Saturday, has, meanwhile, reached the Somali shore.