US captain held by Somali pirates is freed

US cargo ship captain Richard Phillips has been freed from captivity at the hands of Somali pirates in a dramatic ending to a five-day standoff with American naval forces, the US Navy said today.

US television channel CNN said Phillips was freed unharmed and that the U.S. military killed three of four pirates who had held him hostage on a lifeboat after trying to seize his vessel. It said a fourth pirate was in custody.

"I can tell you that he is free and that he is safe," Navy Lieutenant Commander John Daniels said. He had no information on how the rescue happened or the physical condition of the captain of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama container ship.

Maersk said it received word of Phillips' rescue from the U.S. Navy at 1330 EDT (1730 GMT) and informed the jubilant crew of the Alabama.

"We are all absolutely thrilled to learn that Richard is safe and will be reunited with his family," Maersk Line chief executive John Reinhart said in a statement.

Phillips, 53, was the first American taken captive by Somali pirate gangs who have marauded in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes for years.

Three U.S. warships had been watching the situation.

US Navy spotters saw Phillips on Sunday morning, ship owner Maersk Line said in a statement.

The Maersk Alabama, a container carrying food aid for Somalians, was attacked far out in the Indian Ocean on Wednesday, but its 20 American crew apparently fought off the pirates and regained control.

Relatives said Phillips volunteered to go with the pirates in a Maersk Alabama lifeboat in exchange for the crew.

Joseph Murphy, whose son, Shane, was Phillips's second in command and took over the Alabama after pirates left with Phillips, said in a statement read by CNN, "Our prayers have been answered on this Easter Sunday."

"My son and our family will forever be indebted to Capt. Phillips for his bravery. If not for his incredible personal sacrifice, this kidnapping - an act of terror - could have turned out much worse," said Murphy.

"The captain is a hero," one crew member shouted from the 17,000-ton ship as it docked in Kenya's Mombasa port under darkness on Saturday. "He saved our lives by giving himself up."

Experts had expected a quick end to the standoff, but the pirates were holding out for both a ransom and safe passage home. Friends told Reuters the gang wanted $2 million.

The saga has thrown world attention on the long-running piracy phenomenon off Somalia that has hiked shipping insurance costs and disrupted international trade.

Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of Mombasa-based East African Seafarers Assistance Program, said the rescue appeared to be the work of frogmen and the feat would change the stakes in future pirate attacks.

"This is a big wake-up to the pirates. It raises the stakes. Now they may be more violent, like the pirates of old," he said.

Pirates have generally treated hostages well, sometimes roasting goat meat for them and even passing phones round so they can call loved-ones. The worst violence reported has been the occasional beating. No hostages are known to have been killed by pirates.