- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Three remarkable shots in the dark from the back of a warship on a rolling sea _ that’s how the Navy’s elite SEALs saved the life of the American hostage in a dangerous standoff with pirates.

Grueling training on land, sea and in the air produces these stealth forces that fight terrorists, launch information warfare, do counter-drug missions and a host of other clandestine operations that a larger force couldn’t do.

The SEALs who ended the five-day pirate drama parachuted from their aircraft to the sea off Somalia and were picked up by the destroyer USS Bainbridge, which had been negotiating with the pirates and was towing the pirated lifeboat at the time.

Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in that region, said Monday that it took only three shots for Navy snipers to kill the trio of pirates holding captain Richard Phillips hostage on the lifeboat.

The takedown happened shortly after the hostage-takers were observed by sailors aboard the USS Bainbridge “with their heads and shoulders exposed,” he told NBC’s “Today” show on Monday in an interview from Bahrain.

Military officials widely praised the snipers for three shots, which they described as remarkable. They said the snipers fired in darkness from the stern of a ship 25 yards away on rolling waters.

The order to fire came after one of the pirates was seen holding an AK-47 so close to Phillips that the weapon appeared to be touching him. Two other pirates popped their heads up, giving snipers all three of their targets, one official said.

The military officials asked not to be named because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.

They said that a fourth pirate who survived was believed to be between 16 and 20 years old, and had in effect surrendered before the sniper rescue.

One official said he jumped into a small craft that had been taking food to the lifeboat, and asked to be taken to the Bainbridge. He also needed medical help because he had been stabbed in the hand on the Maersk Alabama in the initial standoff with crew members when the pirates attempted unsuccessfully to take over the cargo vessel, officials said.

Shane Murphy, a crew member of the Maersk Alabama, told a news conference: “We are lucky to be out of it with every one of us alive. We never had to fight to take our ship back. We never gave up.”

A senior U.S. official said negotiations with the pirates had been “going up and down. Discussions would be going well, and then they would get discouraged and real angry.” This official, asking not to be publicly identified because he, too, was not authorized to discuss this on the record, said the pirates were “becoming increasingly agitated in the rough waters; they weren’t getting what they wanted.”

Just as it was getting dark, pirates fired a tracer bullet “toward the Bainbridge,” further heightening the sense that the incident was ratcheting up, the official said.

He said that at the time snipers took their shot, Phillips’ hands were bound.

The official said that while Navy negotiators acting on the FBI’s advice had been trying to talk the pirates into letting the captain go, they did not discuss paying a ransom.

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