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, AP reported.
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.