Captain freed unhurt, pirates killed


US cargo ship captain Richard Phillips has been freed from captivity at the hands of Somali pirates in a dramatic ending to a five-day standoff with American naval forces, the US Navy said tonight.

Capt Phillips was freed unharmed in an operation in which the US military killed three of four pirates who had held him hostage on a lifeboat after trying to seize his vessel. The fourth pirate was in custody.

"I can tell you that he is free and that he is safe," Navy Lieutenant Commander John Daniels said. He had no information on how the rescue happened or the physical condition of the captain of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama container ship.

Maersk said it received word of Phillips' rescue from the US Navy at 6.30 pm Irish time and informed the jubilant crew of the Alabama.

"We are all absolutely thrilled to learn that Richard is safe and will be reunited with his family," Maersk Line chief executive John Reinhart said in a statement.

Capt Phillips, 53, was the first American taken captive by Somali pirate gangs who have marauded in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes for years.

Nineteen American sailors who escaped the pirate hijacking off the Horn of Africa have reached safe harbour. The crew of the Maersk Alabama described their ordeal.

“They came from the stern of the ship and came on with hooks and ropes and were firing in the air when they got on board,” said ATM Reza, a crew member who said he was the first to see the pirates board Wednesday.

As the pirates shot in the air, Captain Phillips (53) of Underhill, Vermont, told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members said.

“He saved our lives” second mate Ken Quinn, of Bradenton, Florida, said as the ship docked in the resort and Kenyan port city of Mombasa. “He’s a hero.”

Mr Reza, a father of one from Hartford, Connecticut, said he had led one of the pirates to the engine room, where he stabbed him in the hand with an ice pick and tied him up. Other sailors corroborated that story.

The crew did not elaborate but have told family members by phone that they took one pirate hostage before giving him up in the hope their captain would be released. Instead, the Somalis fled with Capt Phillips to the lifeboat.

Some of the Alabama’s crew cheered and cracked jokes as they arrived in Mombasa, others peered warily over the edge of their 17,000-ton cargo ship.

Crewman William Rios described the whole experience as a “nightmare” and said the first thing he will do back home in New York is pray. “I’m going to church,” he said.

Mr Quinn told reporters the experience was “terrifying and exciting at the same time.” Asked what he thought of the pirates who seized the boat, Mr Quinn said: “They’re just hungry.”

Maersk president John Reinhart said from Norfolk, Virginia that the ship was still a crime scene and the crewmen could not leave until the FBI investigates the attack. He said crew members have been provided phones so they can stay in touch with family members.

“When I spoke to the crew, they won’t consider it done when they board a plane and come home,” Mr Reinhart said. “They won’t consider it done until the captain is back, nor will we.”