NAIROBI, April 13 (Xinhua) -- An American cargo ship captain held hostage by pirates in a lifeboat off the coast of Somalia has been rescued by the U.S. Navy, a regional maritime official confirmed on Monday.
Andrew Mwangura, East Africa's Coordinator of Seafarers Assistance Program (SAP), said that captain Richard Phillips who is now resting happily on a U.S. Navy vessel was freed by the Navy commandos in an operation that resulted in the deaths of three of his captors.
Mwangura said Phillips was rescued by members of an elite U.S. navy unit, after a brief firefight at sea that left three of his four captors dead and one in custody.
"The U.S. Navy rescued the captain unharmed in the military operation that took place late Sunday. Three pirates were killed during the operation while one was arrested. I have not established whether the pirate surrendered or was injured," Mwangura told Xinhua by telephone.
Phillip's ship, the Maersk Alabama, was attacked last Wednesday. Members of his crew said Phillips turned himself over to the pirates in exchange for their safety. The ship had been carrying food aid bound for Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda.
The captain became the first American to be seized by the pirate gangs that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes for years.
Mwangura said the U.S. military operation ended a tense, five-day standoff in which four pirates armed with pistols and AK-47s ultimately faced off with a small American armada in the Indian Ocean off Somalia's coast.
Reports said the U.S. Navy positioned snipers near the fantail of the destroyer USS Bainbridge less than 30 yards from the lifeboat, fired within seconds after a commander determined that Captain Phillips, 53, was in "imminent danger" as one of the pirates aimed an AK-47 at his back.
U.S. military officials acknowledged Sunday that the killing of the three pirates could worsen the problem, an outcome that shipping companies have sought to avoid.
Somalia's fragile transitional government, struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency with ties to Al-Qaeda, can barely control the capital, Mogadishu, much less a piracy epidemic rooted along its shores, where the multimillion-dollar business has turned sleepy fishing villages into mini-boomtowns.
Four French citizens, including a three-year-old boy, were freed aboard a yacht by French troops on Friday. The yacht's owner, Florent Lemacon, was killed during the operation along with two pirates.
On Saturday, pirates hijacked a tugboat in the Gulf of Aden. The Buccaneer has 16 crew members on board, 10 of them Italians.
Meanwhile, Somali pirates threatened revenge after two separate hostage-rescue raids by foreign forces killed three pirates, raising fears of future bloodshed on the high seas.
In Eyl, a pirate stronghold on the Somali coast, one self-proclaimed pirate said the U.S. navy had become the "number one enemy."