- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

MOMBASA, KENYA (AP) - When news broke that an American captain held by Somali pirates was rescued Sunday, his crew erupted in cheers and sent red flares screaming into the sky in celebration for a man they hailed as a hero.

U.S. Navy snipers opened fire and killed three pirates holding Capt. Richard Phillips at gunpoint in a lifeboat off the Somali coast, delivering him unharmed and ending a five-day high-seas hostage drama on Easter Sunday.

Phillips’ 19 crewmen, who said the captain offered himself as a hostage to safeguard the crew, gathered on the lower deck of the Maersk Alabama, docked in Mombasa, Kenya. They whistled and pumped their fists in the air.

Crew members fired two bright red flares into the sky from the ship.

“We made it!” shouted ATM “Zahid” Reza, from Hartford, Connecticut, pumping his fist in the air as he stood among about a dozen crewmen who came out to answer questions from the throng of journalists and television cameras.

Another crew member, who declined to give his name, said he was not surprised Phillips had made it out alive, but said the captain had been “in a 120-degree oven for days.”

Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, was not hurt in several minutes of gunfire aboard the enclosed lifeboat. The U.S. Navy said he was resting comfortably on a U.S. warship after receiving a medical exam.

Phillips is believed to have been the first U.S. citizen taken by pirates in 200 years. Piracy has come back in recent years, with Somali pirates staging successful attacks in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes.

Crew members said their ordeal began Wednesday when the Somali pirates came aboard, firing their guns into the air. Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself, they said.

Several of the men said the crew had taken a Somali pirate hostage and had agreed to release him in exchange for the captain, but that something went amiss with the plan.

Details were sketchy as the men were hesitant to release not only their names, but specifics of their ordeal.

“We captured one of the pirates. And we badgered them and gave them an exit,” another man said of the pirates. “They were demoralized because they didn’t ever have” control of the 17,000-ton cargo ship.

Phillips was then held hostage in the lifeboat that was closely watched by U.S. warships and a helicopter.

“I just want to make one thing clear _ we never lost control of this ship,” said another crewman, who also declined to give his name. “It’s our ship.” He said pirates had been circling the ship for days before the attack.

“Tell the president to get these guys (pirates). Tell him to get the Navy down here and start protecting these ships. It shouldn’t get to that.”

He also gave a warning to Somali pirates, who still hold some 200 hostages from around the world, including 92 Filipinos. “Now we know how to beat ‘em,” he said. “Word’s out!”

Reza was “terribly relieved” that Phillips was safe and that the ordeal has convinced him to consider giving up his job, said Reza’s wife, Elizabeth. She said she spoke with him from Kenya moments after news broke of Phillips’ release.

The other men on board had more immediate concerns.

As they ducked back into the boat _ where FBI agents were interviewing the crew before allowing them to disembark _ one man shouted: “We’re going back to America!”

(This version CORRECTS first name of Reza’s wife to Elizabeth).)

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