Somali pirates meet their match

Monday April 13 2009

Some of the crew members who were onboard the MV Maersk Alabama. They urged US President Obama to solve the problem of piracy that has infiltrated the coast of Somalia. Photo/Gideon Maundu.

Some of the crew members who were onboard the MV Maersk Alabama. They urged US President Obama to solve the problem of piracy that has infiltrated the coast of Somalia. Photo/Gideon Maundu. 


The wife of American seaman Richard Philips rescued after five days in the hands of Somali pirates has saved something special for her husband — chocolate Easter egg, unless his son eats it first. Andrea Philips’ special offer was communicated by sailors aboard US destroyer Bainbridge which monitored the lifeboat in her husband was held captive.

Various foreign news agencies reported that three snipers killed three pirates in the lifeboat on Sunday with the approval of President Barack Obama after it was deemed that the seaman’s life was in imminent danger.

Dramatic rescue

Capt Philip’s capture was a major test for the US president and his rescue must have been welcome relief for the young commander-in-chief. “The result of dramatic rescue operation left Mr Obama with an early victory that could help build confidence in his ability to direct military actions abroad,” said the Washington Post.

But it is the captain’s courage and selflessness that captured world attention, earning him praise from President Obama. According to Reuters, when the four pirates boarded the ship, Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and allowed himself to be taken hostage in their place.

The crew had overpowered the pirates, given them cash and food, and asked them to go away. But because they had sunk their boats, the crew offered them the ship’s lifeboat onto which they ordered Philips — himself an anti-piracy expert — and sailed away with him. The crew of the US flagged Maersk Alabama captured one of pirates — injured during the confrontation — but freed him on the agreement that his colleagues would release their captain.

The bandits didn’t honour their word. They threatened to kill the captain if attacked, and the result, observed the New York Times, was tragicomic: the world’s most powerful navy versus a lifeboat. The US deployed navy destroyer Bainbridge, the USS Halyburton, a guided-missile frigate equipped with helicopters, and the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship with missile launchers and attack planes.

On Friday, Philips, 53, jumped out of the ship and attempted to swim free, but the Somali gunmen recaptured him. Trouble for the pirates came when their vessel was caught up in turbulent waters — with little fuel, food and drinking water — forcing them to seek help from the Bainbridge.

This made them vulnerable. The condition of their colleague whose hand was gashed during the fighting in the Alabama had also worsened. He later sought help from Bainbrigde crew, effectively surrendering. Having run out of fuel, the pirates who had started drifting toward the Somali coast on Sunday evening, accepted to be towed from the Bainbridge.

According to the New York Times the towline was 200 feet long, but as darkness gathered and seas became rough, the towline was shortened to 100 feet, probably without the knowledge of the tired gunmen. But the crooks fired a bullet from the lifeboat to the provocation of the Americans. Snipers from the Navy Seals— an elite force within specialising in guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency— were put on standby at the stern rail of the Bainbridge.

Two of the captors poked their heads out of a rear hatch of the lifeboat, exposing themselves to clear shots, and the third could be seen through a window in the bow, pointing an automatic rifle at the captain, who was tied up inside, Navy officials told the New York Times. It took only three remarkable shots — one each by snipers firing from a distance at dusk, using night-vision scopes, for the Americans to accomplish their mission.

Using ropes, the rescuers slid down from the Bainbridge, climbed aboard the lifeboat and untied Capt Phillips. President Obama celebrated Captain Philip selflessness. “I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew,” Mr Obama said in a statement.

His crew members who docked at Mombasa also praised him. “The captain is a hero. He saved our lives by giving himself up,” shouted one of them. But Philips said the real heroes are the Navy men “who have brought me home.” “I’m just the byline.”

But the killing of the Somali pirates infuriated their colleagues who vowed revenge. “In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying,” pirate Abdullahi Lami told the Associated Press.