US captain kidnapped by pirates freed

The US captain held hostage by Somali pirates has been freed by American special forces in a daring rescue mission which left three abductors dead, CNN reported on Sunday.

world Updated: Apr 13, 2009 02:05 IST

The US captain held hostage by Somali pirates has been freed by American special forces in a daring rescue mission which left three abductors dead, CNN reported on Sunday.

Citing a senior US official, the broadcaster said US navy seals had stormed the lifeboat after Phillips jumped overboard, killing three pirates and taking one into custody.

Phillips, 53, is now on the nearby US warship Bainbridge, and in good health, according to the official.

Phillips' ordeal began when his boat, the Maersk Alabama, was attacked by pirates Wednesday off the coast of Somalia, a notorious piracy hotspot.

After a fight between pirates and crew, Phillips was abducted on a lifeboat by four pirates, whilst the crew regained control of the Alabama, which is now docked in Mombasa, Kenya.

Some unconfirmed reports from the crew suggest Phillips allowed himself to be taken by the pirates, if the remaining crew could stay with the Alabama.

It appeared that on Sunday Phillips for the second time attempted to free himself by jumping overboard from the lifeboat, prompting the rescue mission by the US special forces.

Family, friends and colleagues said they were overjoyed at the freeing of Phillips.

"We are absolutely thrilled that Richard is safe and soon will be reunited with his family," John Reinhart, the head of the shipping company Maersk, said.

Reinhart said his firm was "deeply grateful" to the US Navy and FBI for their negotiation and rescue efforts.

Reinhart said he had immediately telephoned Phillips wife, Andrea, with news of the release.

Phillips has once before attempted to escape his abductors by jumping overboard, but had been fired upon and recaptured.

The Alabama was brought to the Kenyan port of Mombasa Saturday night, where the crew appeared briefly on deck for reporters in the harbour.

The Alabama - a 17,000-tonne cargo vessel carrying food aid - was boarded by the pirates on Wednesday morning, the first time US sailors have been seized in the treacherous waters near the Horn of Africa.

The unarmed crew quickly retook the ship, however.

The Alabama arrived under guard in the Kenyan port of Mombasa Saturday night, where some crew members, dressed in blue overalls and helmets, defied orders from the FBI not to discuss the hijacking and shouted out to waiting journalists.

Accounts from the crew said that the pirates appeared on a small boat and then used grappling hooks to board the ship, firing shots in the air as they came.

Phillips then reportedly gave himself up to the pirates in order to safeguard his crew, something that second mate Ken Quinn said made him a "hero".

In the latest of a spate of piracy incidents in the Indian Ocean off the Somali coast, French naval forces Friday stormed a yacht and freed four hostages. However, two pirates and one hostage died during the operation.

A separate pirate group tried to steam the 20,000-tonne Hansa Stavanger - a German-owned container ship hijacked one week ago - to help the embattled group of pirates, but was forced to return to anchor.

In 2008, pirates seized over 40 vessels in and around the Gulf of Aden and collected tens of millions of dollars in ransom, prompting the international community to send warships to the region.

Around 15 warships from the European Union, a coalition task force and individual countries such as Russia, the US, India and China patrol an area of about 2.85 million sq km.

However, the pirates are now venturing farther into the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of Somalia to avoid the international patrols.

Observers have said they feel dealing can only stop piracy with insecurity on the ground in Somalia.

First Published: Apr 13, 2009 02:04 IST