- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Ordered to shoot to kill, snipers on the heaving stern of the destroyer had one improbable chance to get it right.

Anything less than direct hits killing three pirates with three bullets would have placed the American hostage, merchant Capt. Richard Phillips, in mortal danger, if not sealed his fate.

The scene was set as darkness fell Sunday evening off the African coast: The last three pirates, holding Phillips in an enclosed powerless lifeboat, appeared to be running out of patience with their predicament.

Bobbing for days after their brazen attempt to seize Phillips’ ship failed, their mood was “going up and down” like the ocean swells, according to U.S. accounts of the negotiations.

They were described as increasingly agitated, and it’s easy to see why. Life aboard the lifeboat was plainly miserable. It’s a sweltering, elongated fiberglass bubble with no setup for sleeping or going to the bathroom on board.

A fourth pirate had surrendered, boarding the destroyer for treatment of a wound to his hand.

The remaining three pirates and the U.S. Navy, like barroom brawlers agreeing to take it outside, had decided to move their standoff to calmer waters.

As night fell, the Bainbridge had the lifeboat under tow when two developments told the Navy the pirates might be getting desperate, U.S. officials said in their reconstruction of events.

First, a tracer bullet arced from the lifeboat toward the Bainbridge.

Then, through one of the few openings on the lifeboat, Phillips could be seen with a gun pointed at him, almost touching him.

The risk seemed obvious, but what about opportunity? Clean lines of fire that would leave the pirates’ captive safe were hard to come by when taking aim at the bubble.

Three Navy SEALs aboard the Bainbridge waited quietly in the darkness for that opportunity.

They had parachuted into the sea to join the destroyer, bringing to the scene a highly trained and thoroughly equipped unit of stealthy rescuers _ and killers.

Now they were 25 or so yards from their targets, waiting.

The opportunity arrived. The three hostage-takers were observed with their heads and shoulders all exposed at once, said Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in the region.

Three shots rang out.

Three pirates were dead or rapidly dying.

Phillips was found safe, his hands bound.

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