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3 snipers take aim, 3 pirates fall dead

BRACING themselves on a rolling warship in choppy seas, US Navy snipers fired three flawless shots to kill a trio of Somali pirates and free the American sea captain being held at gunpoint, a Navy commander said yesterday.

Angry pirates vowed retaliation for the deaths, raising fears for the safety of some 230 foreign sailors still held hostage in more than a dozen ships anchored off the coast of Somalia.

"From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (the hostages)," Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old pirate, told the Associated Press from one of Somalia's piracy hubs, Eyl. "(US forces have) become our No. 1 enemy."

The nighttime operation was a victory for the world's most powerful military, but few experts believed it would quell a rising tide of attacks in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Interviewed from Bahrain, US Naval Forces Central Command chief Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said the take-down happened shortly after the hostage-takers were observed by sailors aboard the USS Bainbridge "with their heads and shoulders exposed."

US Defense officials said snipers got the go-ahead to fire after one pirate held an AK-47 so close to Captain Richard Phillips' back that the weapon appeared to be touching him. Two other pirates popped their heads up, giving snipers three clear targets, one official said.

The US Navy released images of the scene from an unmanned drone that showed snipers positioning themselves on the fantail of the USS Bainbridge. The snipers fired simultaneously.

Asked how the snipers could have killed each pirate with a single shot in the dark, Gortney described them as "extremely, extremely well-trained." He told NBC's "Today" show that the shooting was ordered by the captain of the USS Bainbridge.

The US Navy SEALS arrived on the scene by parachuting from their aircraft into the sea and were picked up by the Bainbridge, a senior US official said.

He said negotiations with the pirates had been "going up and down." The official 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 USS Bainbridge," further heightening the sense that the incident was ratcheting up, the official said.

According to the official, when the time snipers fired, Captain Phillips' hands were bound.

News of Phillips' rescue caused his crew in Kenya to break into wild cheers and brought tears to the eyes of those in Phillips' hometown of Underhill, Vermont.

US President Barack Obama called Phillips' courage "a model for all Americans" and said he was pleased with the rescue. The stunning resolution to a five-day standoff came after pirates had agreed to let the USS Bainbridge tow their powerless lifeboat out of rough water.

A fourth pirate surrendered after boarding the Bainbridge earlier Sunday and could face life in a US prison. He had been seeking medical attention for a wound to his hand, military officials said.

In a move that surprised the pirates, the US-flagged Maersk Alabama had put up a fight last Wednesday when pirates boarded the ship. Until then, Somali pirates had become used to encountering no resistance once they boarded a ship in search of million-dollar ransoms.


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