The wife of Capt. Richard Phillips holds his photo. (Photo: Toby Talbot / AP)
Nairobi, Kenya - In a daring high-seas rescue, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed the American sea captain who had offered himself as a hostage to save his crew. The operation was a victory for the world's most powerful military but angry pirates vowed Monday to retaliate.
Those threats raised fears for the safety of some 230 foreign sailors still held hostage in more than a dozen ships anchored off the coast of lawless Somalia.
"From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (the hostages)," Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old pirate, told the Associated Press from one of Somalia's piracy hubs, Eyl. "(U.S. forces have) become our No. 1 enemy."
News of Capt. Richard Phillips' rescue caused his crew in Kenya to break into wild cheers and brought tears to the eyes of those in Phillips' hometown of Underhill, Vermont, half a world away from the Indian Ocean drama.
President Barack Obama called Phillips' courage "a model for all Americans" and said he was pleased with the rescue, but added the United States still needed help from other countries to deal with piracy and to hold pirates accountable.
The stunning resolution to a five-day standoff came Sunday in a daring nighttime assault in choppy seas after pirates had agreed to let the USS Bainbridge tow their powerless lifeboat out of rough water.
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said Phillips, 53, was tied up and in "imminent danger" of being killed because a pirate on the lifeboat held an AK-47 assault rifle to the back of his head.
At that, the commander of Bainbridge made the split-second decision to order Navy snipers to shoot at the lifeboat, about 25-30 yards (meters) away, taking aim at the pirates' heads and shoulders.
A fourth pirate surrendered after boarding the Bainbridge earlier in the day and could face life in a U.S. prison. He had been seeking medical attention for a wound to his hand and was negotiating with U.S. officials on conditions for Phillips' release, military officials said.
In a move that surprised the pirates, the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama had put up a fight Wednesday when pirates boarded the ship. Until then, Somali pirates had become used to encountering no resistance once they boarded a ship in search of million-dollar ransoms.
Yet Sunday's blow to their lucrative activities is unlikely to stop pirates from threatening one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, simply because of the size of the vast area stretching from the Gulf of Aden and the coast of Somalia.
In fact, some say it may provoke retaliatory attacks against other hostages.
"This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it," said Gortney, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
A Somali pirate agreed.
"Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying," Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the Somali town of Gaan, told The Associated Press on Monday. "We will retaliate (for) the killings of our men."
On Friday, French navy commandos stormed a pirate-held sailboat, the Tanit, in a shootout at sea that killed two pirates and one French hostage and freed four French citizens.
The drama surrounding Phillips and his ship - the first American taken hostage in the Gulf of Aden - has made headlines around the world, pitting a lone captain held by pirates on a tiny, drifting boat surrounded by U.S. warships.
The pirates still hold about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the piracy watchdog International Maritime Bureau. Hostages are from Bulgaria, China, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, the Philippines, Russia, Taiwan, Tuvalu and Ukraine, among other countries.
Vilma de Guzman, whose husband is one of 23 Filipino sailors held hostage since Nov. 10 on chemical tanker MT Stolt Strength, feared Phillips' rescue may endanger the lives of other hostages.
"The pirates might vent their anger on them," she said. "Those released are lucky, but what about those who remain captive?"
She also criticized world media for focusing so much on the U.S. captain but giving little attention to other hostages.
Phillips was not hurt in several minutes of gunfire Sunday and the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet said he was resting comfortably on a U.S. warship after receiving a medical exam.
Aboard the Bainbridge, sailors passed along a message from Andrea Phillips to her husband: "Richard, your family loves you, your family is praying for you, and your family is saving a chocolate Easter egg for you, unless your son eats it first."
Phillips himself deflected any praise.
"I'm just the byline. The real heroes are the Navy, the SEALs, those who have brought me home," Phillips said by phone to Maersk Line Limited President and CEO John Reinhart.
With news of the rescue, Phillips' 17,000-ton ship, which docked with his 19 crew members Saturday in Mombasa, Kenya, erupted into wild cheers. Some waved an American flag and one fired a bright red flare in celebration.
"We made it!" said crewman ATM Reza, pumping his fist in the air.
In Vermont, Maersk spokeswoman Alison McColl choked up as she stood outside the family's house and read their statement.
"Andrea and Richard have spoken. I think you can all imagine their joy, and what a happy moment that was for them. They're all just so happy and relieved.
"Andrea wanted me to tell the nation that all of your prayers and good wishes have paid off because Captain Phillips is safe," she said.
The ship had been carrying food aid bound for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda when the ordeal began Wednesday hundreds of miles (kilometers) off Somalia's eastern coast. As the pirates clambered aboard and shot in the air, Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men.
Phillips was then taken hostage in an enclosed lifeboat that was soon shadowed by three U.S. warships and a helicopter. Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired into the water, according to U.S. Defense Department officials.
The surviving fourth pirate was in military custody, but FBI spokesman John Miller said that would change as the situation became "more of a criminal issue than a military issue."
Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula said his country had not received any request from the United States to try the captured pirate, but would "consider it on its own merit."
When the United States captured pirates in 2006, Kenya agreed to try them. Ten pirates were convicted and are serving prison sentences of seven years each.
Worried residents of Harardhere, another Somali pirate stronghold, gathered in the street Monday to discuss possible repercussions.
"We fear that any revenge taken by the pirates against foreign nationals could bring more attacks from the foreign navies, perhaps on our villages," Abdullahi Haji Jama, a clothing store owner, told the AP by telephone.
Jakes reported from Washington. Associated Press writers who contributed to this report include Mohamed Olad Hassan and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia; Michelle Faul, Elizabeth A. Kennedy, Malkhadir M. Muhumed and Tom Maliti in Kenya; Matt Apuzzo and Jennifer Loven in Washington; Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines; John Curran in Underhill, Vermont, Matt Moore in Berlin; Dena Potter in Norfolk, Virginia.