SEALs pull off daring nighttime assault

April 13, 2009 7:17:40 PM PDT
The light wasn't good as the murky evening darkness was descending on the Indian Ocean. The sea was rolling, making the targets bob around like corks as well as giving the shooters an unsteady platform. A miss could be disastrous.

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But the trio of Navy Seals who had been secretly dropped into the sea over the weekend and taken aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Bainbridge, were steely. They strapped on night vision goggles and zeroed in their targets, three pirates on a red lifeboat floating on the rough seas, including one pirate who was pointing an AK-47at the back of Capt. Richard Phillips.

When the command to fire was given, three shots rang out and the five-day long standoff was over. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said today that each sniper, who he described as "extremely, extremely well-trained," fired only one shot.

Cheers erupted around the world: on the Bainbridge in the Indian Ocean, on Phillips' ship the Maersk Alabama in the port of Mombasa, Kenya, and loudest of all in Phillips' hometown of Underhill, Vt., where cars honked their horns in celebration.

President Obama began a news conference on transportation funding today by saying how "very proud" he was of the job carried out by the military.

"I want to take a moment to say how pleased I am about the rescue of Capt. Phillips and his safe return... I had a chance to talk to his wife yesterday. And as she put it, she couldn't imagine a better Easter than seeing his safe return," the president said.

Film of Phllips, 53, on board the Bainbridge showed him smiling while being greeted by sailors and telling them, "Thank you very much."

A neighbor of the Phillips said that the captain called his wife, Andrea. "She was laughing... his trademark sense of humor is still very much intact and he's in great spirits," the neighbor said.

As Americans celebrated, however, pirates along Somalia's coast simmered with anger and vowed revenge against U.S. and French sailors. French commandos killed two pirates in a rescue operation last week that also killed one of the pirates' hostages.

"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." "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 AP today. "We will retaliate (for) the killings of our men."

Gortney conceded on Sunday that the U.S. actions could have raised the stakes for ships in pirate-infested waters.

"This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it," Gortney said.

Where to Try the Surviving Pirate

The pirates made their threats as they brought yet another captured ship into a harbor to await its ransom. This time it was an Italian tugboat hijacked in the Gulf of Aden. On board were 10 Italians, five Romanians and a Croatian. Somali pirates are believed to be holding more than 200 captured sailors for ransom.

But for the first time, a Somali pirate is on board an American warship to face justice. He is the lone survivor of the lifeboat because he surrendered and went aboard the Bainbridge for treatment of an injury he suffered during the pirates' attack on the Maersk Alabama, Phillips' freighter, last week.

Justice Department officials are trying to determine whether to try the pirate in the U.S. or leave him to a pirate court in Kenya that has yet to try anyone for piracy.

"We have multiple avenues," Gortney said. "We could possibly bring him back here to the United States and try him since this was an American flag vessel."

If tried in the U.S., it's not clear whether the pirate will be brought to New York or Washington. In the meantime, the prisoner has been transferred to the U.S.S. Boxer, the same ship where Phillips is now resting.

The U.S. also made a diplomatic move in the day after shooting the three Somali pirates. Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., flew into the Somali capital of Mogadishu along with six bodyguards. He met with Somali government officials at the airport to discuss ways to end the piracy.

The Somali government, however, controls little of the country and is involved in a fight for its life against an Islamic insurgency. In fact, insurgents fired mortars at the airport as Payne's plane arrived and again when his plane departed.

After the rescue, President Obama said the battle against pirates would not end.

"We remain resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this region," Obama said. "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 are held accountable for their crimes."

The drama on the high seas was brought to a close after the Navy patiently waited days for its chance and slowly maneuvered the pirates closer to the Bainbridge. The ship's commander had already received the president's authorization to take action "in extremis" to protect Phillips' life and prevent him from being taken into Somalia as a hostage.

For days, the Navy had been sending a small inflatable boat to the lifeboat to provide Phillips and the pirates with food, water, medicine if they needed it, and changes of clothing for Phillips. Gortney said this was all an effort to build confidence.

When the boat went by on Sunday one pirate got in and was transported back to the Bainbridge.

That pirate was engaged in negotiations aboard the Bainbridge, but Gortney said that at no time was the U.S. preparing to pay what Gortney described as a "significant" ransom demanded by the pirates. He said U.S. officials were trying to explain to the pirates that they had no good options left and to give up Phillips.

Gunfire Raised Tensions

Somali elders who were negotiating for the pirates offered to forgo a ransom but insisted that the pirates not be arrested, according to people in touch with the elders. However, the U.S. negotiators would not accept those terms, the sources said.

Negotiations were getting tense and at one point the Navy said it observed a muzzle flash near Phillips' head and approached the lifeboat demanding proof that Phillips was alive. The pirates did not let the Navy see Phillips, but put him on the phone with the Navy.

Earlier in the long standoff, Phillips had jumped off the lifeboat in an attempt to escape and the pirates fired, although it's still not clear whether they fired in the air or at the captain.

And on a second occasion, the pirates fired their weapons to ward off the approaching Navy boat.

When conditions at sea deteriorated this weekend, the Navy talked the pirates into allowing the boat to be towed to calmer water and talked one of the pirates into coming on board the Bainbridge to negotiate.

The Navy apparently brought the boat to within 40 yards of its fantail.

On Sunday evening, the situation "escalated" and the commander on scene determined that Phillips' life was in imminent danger.

Gortney said that they observed the pirates aiming an AK-47 at Phillips' back and seemed to be "getting ready to use it." Phillips was tied up, and the Navy "interpreted hostile intent" and decided to take action.

At one point, two pirates "exposed" their heads and shoulders, Gortney said, giving the snipers only "seconds" to decide whether to shoot. The third pirate with the gun aimed at Phillips could be seen inside the lifeboat's cabin. It was 7:19 p.m. on the ocean, 12:19 p.m. ET, when the order to fire was given. And it was over.

Onboard Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, now docked in a Kenyan port, Phillips' crew cheered, waved American flags and shot off makeshift fireworks.

Crew members have hailed Phillips for giving himself up to the pirates last Wednesday to save their lives. Today crew members gave a brief emtional news conference, praising Phillips' heroism and their own ability to stick together.

"This crew was lucky to be out of it with every one of us alive," said Capt. Shane Murphy, of Buzzards Bay, Mass., the Alabama's second in command. "We're not going to be that lucky again."

"And just for the record, we never had to fight to take our ship back. We never surrendered our ship," Murphy said.

Phillips refused the title of hero and said his Navy rescuers are "the real heroes."

Obama phoned Phillips on the Boxer and also called Phillips' wife and family at their home.

In a prepared statement, he hailed the heroism of the military and Phillips.

"I share the country's admiration for the bravery of Capt. Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew," Obama said. "His courage is a model for all Americans."

Capt. Joseph Murphy, whose son, Shane, took over the Maersk-Alabama after Phillips was taken off the boat, seconded that feeling.

"Our prayers have been answered on this Easter Sunday," Murphy said in a written statement. "I have made it clear throughout this terrible ordeal that my son and our family will forever be indebted to Capt. Phillips for his bravery. If not, for his incredible personal sacrifice ... this kidnapping and act of terror could have turned out much worse."

How to Stop Future Pirate Attacks

But the question was how to stop future attacks. Murphy made an appeal for Obama to take the lead in the fight against pirates.

"America has to be in the forefront of this crisis. And it is a crisis," Murphy said.

On ABC News' "This Week," Adm. Thad Allen, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said the answer is not arming merchant ships to defend against pirates, as some have advocated.

"I think that's pretty problematic for reasons such as training, certification, how you apply standards," he said. "The discussions I've had with the private sector and the ship companies really don't favor that right now."

Kaj Larsen, a former Navy SEAL who has made documentaries on pirates in Indonesia and arms sales in Mogadishu, told ABC News the problem of piracy will not be easily solved.

"I'm very relieved that the hostage is safe," Larsen said. "That was a happy ending to what was obviously a trying ordeal for the American crew. At the same time I'm cautiously pessimistic, because I'm keenly aware that we're going to see more and more of this problem in the future.

"I don't think in this particular case unfortunately, you're going to see a deterrent effect," he said. "The sums that these pirates are making are just extraordinary. So the incentive is too great even if they lose a few of their foot soldiers in the process."

The Maersk Alabama was in Somali waters because it was carrying food aid to hungry people in Africa, including Somalia.

ABC News' Jim Sciutto, John Hendren, Jake Tapper and Jason Ryan contributed to this report, as did The Associated Press.

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