- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

With three shots, U.S. Navy sharpshooters drew a line against future ransom payments to pirates, killing three and rescuing Capt. Richard Phillips on Sunday unharmed.

It was an Easter miracle for the captain's family and the crew of his ship, and a successful test of mettle for the young Obama administration.

President Obama had said nothing publicly during the five-day standoff that began Wednesday, when four pirates tried to hijack the Maersk Alabama, which was carrying food for African refugees.

With Capt. Phillips safe and unharmed, White House aides offered details of Mr. Obama's actions during the crisis, which included at least 30 meetings, briefings and updates, during which the president issued two shoot-to-kill authorization orders.

“Our authority came directly from the president,” said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.

Three hidden snipers on the USS Bainbridge had their scopes trained on the covered lifeboat, where Capt. Phillips had been held hostage since Wednesday, when pirates boarded the U.S.-flagged ship.

Crew members said Sunday that the Somali pirates never had control of the ship before they fled with Capt. Phillips as a hostage.

The lifeboat was out of gas and being towed by the Bainbridge on Sunday as hostage negotiations proceeded. One pirate had left the lifeboat, apparently to negotiate a ransom payment.

When the other three pirates briefly showed themselves above the lifeboat's deck, with one pointing an assault rifle at Capt. Phillips, the snipers opened fire and hit their mark.

“The captain's life was in immediate danger, and that is the situation in which our sailors acted,” Adm. Gortney told reporters at the Pentagon via satellite from Bahrain.

“The intent the entire time was a slow, deliberate process to let the negotiation process work itself out to a nonviolent end, and unfortunately that did not occur,” he said.

Capt. Phillips, 53, was taken aboard the Norfolk-based Bainbridge and then flown to the assault ship USS Boxer.

“He contacted his family, received a routine medical evaluation and is resting comfortably,” the Navy said.

When word of the rescue came, crew members fired flares in celebration from the Maersk Alabama, which is docked in Mombasa, Kenya, where U.S. authorities are conducting an investigation.

At Capt. Phillips' home in Underhill, Vt., a sign on the lawn seeking prayers for his safety was changed to read, “Capt. Phillips rescued and safe.”

The captain has been described by his crew as a hero for leaving the Alabama with the pirates to save his ship.

“I would like at this moment to send my kind regards to the Phillips family,” Joseph Murphy, the father of the Alabama's second-in-command, Shane Murphy, said in a statement read by a reporter on CNN, which first reported the rescue.

With Capt. Phillips held hostage, Shane Murphy took over as the Alabama's skipper and sailed the vessel to Mombasa.

“Our prayers have been answered on this Easter Sunday,” the elder Mr. Murphy said.

Dan O'Shea, a former Navy SEAL who also served as the director of the Hostage Working Group in Iraq, said the U.S. Navy was unwilling to let the drifting lifeboat reach the Somali coast.

“[The pirates] had run out of gas; they would soon be running out of food and water. [The Navy] wanted to wear out the hostage takers and deplete their resources, because the longer the clock ticks, the better it is for the good guys and harder on the kidnappers,” Mr. O'Shea said. An FBI hostage team had advised the Navy as it negotiated with the pirates.

“I'm not sorry the pirates were killed,” Mr. O'Shea said. “Unfortunately, the only thing these types of pirates understand is force.

“And once you start paying ransom, you create a cottage industry that cripples the world. But today we sent a strong message - that if you come after an American ship with an American crew, we are going to come after you, and we are going to get our people back,” he said.

During the standoff, Mr. Obama gave orders “to engage in potential emergency action,” according to a summary of events issued by the White House.

Mr. Obama was either in church for Easter services Sunday morning or in a motorcade back to the White House when word came of the rescue.

The president later called the captain's wife, Andrea, in Vermont and senior naval officers involved in the rescue.

Mr. Obama also issued his first statement on the crisis, praising Capt. Phillips. “His courage is a model for all Americans.”

The president also congratulated the U.S. military and other agencies involved during the standoff.

“We remain resolved to halt the rise of piracy in this region,” Mr. 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.”

John Reinhart, president and chief executive officer of Maersk Line Ltd., said: “We are all absolutely thrilled to learn that Richard is safe and will be reunited with his family.”

He added that he is “deeply grateful to the Navy, the FBI and so many others for their tireless efforts to secure Richard's freedom.”

Audrey Hudson contributed to this report

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