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Navy Kills Three Pirates While Freeing Captain

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. And it turned into a joyous Easter for Richard Phillips. He's the cargo ship captain who was held captive by Somali pirates for five days off the east coast of Africa. In a dramatic rescue, U.S. Navy snipers yesterday shot dead three pirates who were holding the captain at gunpoint in a lifeboat. A fourth pirate surrendered. Phillips is now safe aboard a U.S. warship, preparing to return to his family in Vermont. NPR's Tom Bowman has the story.

TOM BOWMAN: The beginning of end for the pirates came soon after negotiations broke down. One of the Somali pirates was aboard the American destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, in talks with naval officers. The pirates demanded money, or threatened to kill Phillips. The officers told them ransom money was not possible.

Vice Admiral BILL GORTNEY (U.S. Navy): We explained to him that there aren't many good options by not giving up and giving us the captain back.

BOWMAN: Vice Admiral Bill Gortney commands naval forces in the region. He briefed reporters Sunday from Bahrain. Gortney says the situation with the pirates soon deteriorated.

Vice Admiral GORTNEY: It got heated, and the on-scene commander interpreted hostile intent by the pirates.

BOWMAN: Hostile intent from the three other pirates - they were just 90 feet away, inside a covered lifeboat being towed by the destroyer during the negotiations. The lifeboat was bouncing in the wake of the increasingly choppy seas.

Vice Admiral GORTNEY: The pirates were armed with AK-47s, had small-caliber pistols, and they were pointing the AK-47 at the captain.

BOWMAN: Gortney says the White House gave what he calls very clear guidance -take lethal action if Phillips life is in danger. Gortney says that moment was approaching.

Vice Admiral GORTNEY: The on-scene commander saw that the weapon was aimed at him, and took it that that pirate was getting ready to use that weapon.

BOWMAN: Navy SEAL commandos armed with high-powered rifles watched closely from the rear of the Bainbridge. Gortney says they could see the pirates in the lifeboat pop their heads up.

Vice Admiral GORTNEY: The snipers positioned on the fantail of the Bainbridge observed one of the pirates in the pilot house, and two pirates with their head and shoulders exposed.

BOWMAN: The SEALs took careful aim at their targets and fired. All three pirates were dead. Some of the SEALs slid down the tow rope to the lifeboat. Others pulled alongside in their own inflatable boat. Phillips, a 53-year-old longtime seaman, was pulled aboard the Bainbridge unharmed. His family says a chocolate Easter egg is waiting for him at home in Vermont.

Vice Admiral GORTNEY: We are working the transport to get Captain Phillips home to his family as quickly as possible.

BOWMAN: Phillips was praised as a hero by his shipmates. Five days ago, pirates came aboard his ship, the Maersk Alabama, and demanded ransom. The crew refused to cooperate. They disabled the ship and held one of the four pirates. Suddenly, the pirates grabbed Phillips. He agreed to leave with them in the ship's lifeboat. The rest of the crew were able to sail away in the cargo ship once the Navy arrived. On Friday, three days into his ordeal, Phillips jumped from the lifeboat at midnight. The pirates shot at him, then swam after him, pulling him back to the boat.

During the past year, there've been dozens of commercial ships grabbed by pirates for ransom in the waters that stretch from the Gulf of Aden to the coast of Somalia. This is a first time a U.S. flagship and American crew were attacked, and that brought a response from the U.S. Navy. Crews normally cooperate. Companies usually pay millions of dollars to pirates for the safe return of cargo and crew. There is rarely bloodshed. Now, Gortney says this rescue ending in the death of three pirates may signal a new, more brutal phase in the piracy.

Vice Admiral GORTNEY: This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it.

BOWMAN: Now, there is at least an escalation in American naval power. The top American commander in the region, General David Petraeus, has ordered more warships to the waters off Somalia, now the center of pirate activity.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.