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Pirates-held captain freed

An American ship captain was freed unharmed early this morning Beijing time in a swift firefight that killed three of the four Somali pirates who had been holding him for days in a lifeboat off the coast of Africa.

US television channel CNN said Richard Phillips was freed unharmed and that three of four pirates holding him had been killed. It said a fourth pirate was in custody.

Maritime sources in Kenya and Somalia did not confirm the report of Phillips' release, which appeared to end a five-day standoff between the Somali gunmen and US forces.

Phillips, 53, is 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.

Three US warships had been watching the situation.

US Navy spotters saw Phillips yesterday morning, ship owner Maersk Line said in a statement, without giving further details.

The Maersk Alabama container ship was attacked far out in the Indian Ocean last Wednesday, but its 20 American crew apparently fought off the pirates and regained control.

Relatives said Phillips volunteered to go with the pirates in a Maersk Alabama lifeboat in exchange for the crew.

"The captain is a hero," one crew member shouted from the 17,000-ton ship as it docked in Kenya's Mombasa port under darkness on Saturday. "He saved our lives by giving himself up."

Experts had expected a quick end to the standoff, but the pirates were holding out for both a ransom and safe passage home.


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