NAIROBI, Kenya — The news that Captain Richard Phillips has escaped unharmed from Somali pirates provoked jubilant celebrations in Mombasa port Sunday.
The thundering horn of Phillips’ ship, the Maersk Alabama, sounded three times and flares were fired into the night sky.
“He’s a national hero,” shouted one of his crewmen from the Maersk Alabama to journalists gathered by the ship at the Mombasa docks. “We’re all excited about the captain being freed.”
The 19 crew whooped with joy at the news that their captain was free after a tense, five-day standoff.
U.S. Navy SEALs shot three armed pirates who were holding Phillips hostage on the lifeboat where he had been held captive since Wednesday, according to CNN. This report from the Navy states that Navy special forces believed Phillips was in "imminent danger" and they shot the pirates. This changes the initial report that said Phillips jumped into the water from the lifeboat and then the Navy SEALs shot the pirates dead to protect him.
The fourth pirate was aboard the USS Bainbridge and has been arrested.
The U.S. sharp shooters felt that Phillips was in imminent danger and they had clear aims at the three pirates so they opened fire, according to a statement from Vice Admiral William Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
The lifeboat was being towed by the Bainbridge and was just 100 feet away from the American snipers, according to Gortney. Phillips was just feet away from the pirates when they were shot dead.
The Navy rescue operation was authorized by U.S. President Barack Obama. From Washington he said he was very pleased that Phillips was free and said that his courage was "a model for all Americans." Obama said he was resolved to deal with the piracy rampant along the Somalian coast.
"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 and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes," said Obama in a statement.
The rescue took place at 12:19 p.m. ET and the lifeboat had drifted to about 20 miles from Somalia's lawless shore, according to the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
Phillips was later taken by helicopter to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer where he was checked by medics, phone his family in Underhill, Vermont, and is reported to be resting comfortably.
"I'm just the byline, the heroes are the Navy SEALS who brought me home," said Phillips, with characteristic modesty.
"He's a leader of men," said John Reinhart, chief executive of Maersk. "He exhibited the true spirit of an American."
"We're happy he's free and we're all alive," shouted another sailor on board the Maersk Alabama in Mombasa.
"He's one of the bravest men I ever met, " said another crewman of Phillips, shouting from the deck of the 17,000-ton container vessel that has been has been docked in Mombasa since Saturday night.
Philips crew gathered on the deck of the Maersk Alabama and waved a large Stars and Stripes flag.
Phillips’ earlier actions to prevent his ship and crew from falling into the hands of the Somali pirates, the Navy operation to free him and the recent French storming of a captured yacht are all signs that the Somali pirates are going to face a tougher response from the U.S. and other international powers patrolling the Indian Ocean waters. Somalia's coastline is more than 1,000 miles long, as long as the U.S. East Coast (see map at bottom of story).
Negotiations between U.S. officials and the four-strong pirate gang were being mediated by Somali clan elders on the mainland but apparently broke down shortly before the armed assault was launched.
The successful raid followed a similar armed attack launched by French commandos last week to release four adults and a child held aboard their hijacked yacht. The French assault ended in tragedy when the owner of the yacht died in the crossfire.
“With today’s rescue and the earlier French action we are seeing a slight hardening of attitude towards pirates,” said Roger Middleton to GlobalPost. Middleton, a piracy expert at London’s Chatham House think tank, said that although this could mark a turning of the tide against the Somali banditry of the seas, he added that it was unlikely to mark the beginning of “every pirate being shot.”
Middleton, who recently produced a report about modern piracy, said that in both rescue bids the pirates were holding hostages on small boats making a military option more viable. “It is a much easier thing to take a small boat than a big tanker or cargo ship,” Middleton said.
“Countries with military capacity in the area are more likely to take this kind of vigorous approach when their own citizens are threatened,” said Middleton.
Phillips, an American citizen, brought out the full might of the U.S. Navy. But there has been no such show of force for the estimated 260 hostages currently held by various pirate groups. Nearly one third of those captives are from the Philippines and the majority are citizens of countries that do not have the naval and military strength of the United States, France or other major powers.
The saga of Captain Phillips has thrown world attention on the long-running piracy off Somalia that has hiked shipping insurance costs and disrupted international trade.
Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program, based in Mombasa, said the rescue would change the stakes in future pirate attacks.
"This is a big wake-up call to the pirates. It raises the stakes. Now they may be more violent, like the pirates of old," said Mwangura.
The Somali pirates use AK-47 automatic rifles and grenade launchers to hijack ships and hold crews hostage. Generally they have not been violent to their hostages and to date no hostages have been killed by the pirates, according to Reuters.
In 2008 the pirates hijacked 42 ships and received ransoms estimated at more than $50 million.
Updated by Andrew Meldrum/GlobalPost
More GlobalPost dispatches about the Somalian pirates: