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US captain freed by Navy snipers arrives in Kenya

THE American sea captain held hostage for five days by Somali pirates reached Kenya today aboard a US destroyer that docked to the strains of "Sweet Home Alabama" hours after his crew reunited with their families back home.

Capt. Richard Phillips of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama cargo ship was brought into Mombasa harbor aboard the USS Bainbridge, which blared out the Lynyrd Skynyrd hit that includes the words "I'm coming home to you." The destroyer hoisted the US flag as it arrived.

Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, gave himself up as a hostage to ensure the safety of his crew. He was freed Sunday by Navy SEAL sharpshooters who killed his three captors with three shots taken from the stern of the Bainbridge amid choppy seas and at night.

Phillips had planned to arrive a day earlier and reunite with his crew. But the Bainbridge diverted to answer a distress call from another US cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, attacked by pirates.

Phillips' crew members flew home Wednesday and were reunited with their families at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

"We are very happy to be going home," crewman William Rios of New York City said. But "we are disappointed to not be reuniting with the captain in Mombasa. He is a very brave man."

A charter plane was on standby to whisk Phillips home, said a security official at Mombasa airport who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Tuesday's attack on the Liberty Sun - the second US-flagged cargo ship targeted in a week - underscored the outlaws' ability to act with impunity despite international naval operations and mounting concern worldwide over how to halt the escalating piracy off the Horn of Africa.

A pirate whose gang attacked the Liberty Sun also claimed his group was targeting American ships and sailors.

"We will seek out the Americans, and if we capture them, we will slaughter them," said a 25-year-old pirate based in the Somali port of Harardhere who gave only his first name, Ismail. "We will target their ships because we know their flags."

Earlier Thursday, the Liberty Sun arrived at Mombasa, its bridge damaged by rocket-propelled grenades and its windows shattered by gunfire, but its 20 American crew members unharmed.

The crew successfully blockaded themselves in the engine room - a tactic employed by the Alabama crew - and warded off the attack with evasive maneuvers.

The ship, carrying food aid for hungry Africans - including Somalis - was damaged "pretty badly" on its bridge, a US official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record about the ship.

Windows were blown out and the crew had to put out a small fire, the official said, but they were still able to navigate. By the time the Bainbridge arrived five hours later, the pirates were gone.

On Wednesday, French naval forces launched an early-morning attack on a suspected pirate supply ship 550 miles east of Mombasa, seizing 11 men and thwarting an attack on the Liberian cargo ship Safmarine Asia, the French Defense Ministry said. No one was injured.

The ministry said the vessel was a larger ship that pirates use to allow their high-speed skiffs to operate hundreds of miles off the coast.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Christophe Prazuck said a French helicopter in the area heard a distress call from the Safmarine Asia. He described the seized ship as a small, noncommercial vessel carrying fuel, water and food.

The 11 pirates, believed to be Somalis, were being held on the Nivose, a French frigate among the international fleet trying to protect shipping in the Gulf of Aden.

France said it has attacked pirates 11 times in the past year, including three assaults to rescue hostages, and is spearheading a Europe-wide anti-piracy force called Atalanta. French politicians have sought to have other European countries take greater action against pirates.

Most hijackings are resolved by shipping companies paying million-dollar ransoms and more, which they recoup from insurance companies that charge high premiums to traverse the dangerous waters off Somalia.

Three Somali pirates in the French city of Rennes faced judicial investigation after being captured in a hostage rescue Friday. Several other pirates also have been in French custody since last year.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced new diplomatic efforts to freeze the pirates' assets and said the Obama administration will work with shippers and insurers to improve their defenses against pirates.

"These pirates are criminals, they are armed gangs on the sea. And those plotting attacks must be stopped," Clinton said at the State Department.

Clinton did not call for military force, although she mentioned "going after" pirate bases in Somalia, as authorized by the UN several months ago.

She said it may be possible to stop boat-building companies from doing business with the pirates.

The measures outlined by Clinton are largely stopgap moves while the administration weighs more comprehensive diplomatic and military action.

She acknowledged it will be hard to find the pirates' assets. But she wants the US and others to "explore ways to track and freeze" pirate ransom money and other funds used in purchases of new boats, weapons and communications equipment.

Maritime experts say military force alone cannot solve the problem because the pirates operate in an area so vast as to render the flotilla of international warships largely ineffective. And with ships legally unable to carry arms in many ports, the world has struggled to end the scourge.

The Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is the shortest route from Asia to Europe. More than 20,000 ships cross the vital sea lane every year. It is becoming more dangerous by the day.

In 2003, there were only 21 attacks in these waters. In less than four months this year, there have been 79 attacks, compared with 111 for all of 2008, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Somali pirates are holding more than 280 foreign crewmen on 15 ships - at least 76 of those sailors captured in recent days.


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