MOMBASA, Kenya - An American ship captain was freed unharmed Sunday in a U.S. Navy operation that killed three of the four Somali pirates who had been holding him for days in a lifeboat off the coast of Africa, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.
One of the pirates was wounded and in custody after a swift firefight, the official said.
Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, was safely transported to a Navy warship nearby.
The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Agovernment official and others in Somali with knowledge of thesituation had reported hours earlier that negotiations for Phillips'release had broken down.
The districtcommissioner of the central Mudug region said talks went on all daySaturday, with clan elders from his area talking by satellite telephoneand through a translator with Americans, but collapsed late Saturdaynight.
"The negotiations between the elders andAmerican officials have broken down. The reason is American officialswanted to arrest the pirates in Puntlandand elders refused the arrest of the pirates," said the commissioner,Abdi Aziz Aw Yusuf. He said he organized initial contacts between theelders and the Americans.
Two other Somalis,one involved in the negotiations and another in contact with thepirates, also said the talks collapsed because of the U.S. insistencethat the pirates be arrested and brought to justice.
Phillips'crew of 19 American sailors reached safe harbor in Kenya's northeastport of Mombasa on Saturday night under guard of U.S. Navy Seals,exhilarated by their freedom but mourning the absence of Phillips.
Crew members said their ordeal had begun with the Somali pirates hauling themselves up from a small boat bobbing on the surface of the Indian Ocean far below.
Asthe pirates shot in the air, Phillips told his crew to lock themselvesin a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew memberssaid.
Phillips was then held hostage in anenclosed lifeboat that was closely watched by U.S. warships and ahelicopter in an increasingly tense standoff.
Talks to free him began Thursday with the captain of the USS Bainbridge talking to the pirates under instruction from FBI hostage negotiators on board the U.S. destroyer.
A statement from Maersk Line, owner of Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, said "the U.S. Navy had sight contact" of Phillips earlier Sunday - apparently when the pirates opened the hatches.
BeforePhillips was freed, a pirate who said he was associated with the gangthat held Phillips, Ahmed Mohamed Nur, told The Associated Press thatthe pirates had reported that "helicopters continue to fly over theirheads in the daylight and in the night they are under the focus of aspotlight from a warship."
He spoke by satellite phone from Harardhere,a port and pirate stronghold where a fisherman said helicopters flewover the town Sunday morning and a warship was looming on the horizon.The fisherman, Abdi Sheikh Muse, said that could be an indication thelifeboat may be near to shore.
The U.S. Navyhad assumed the pirates would try to get their hostage to shore, wherethey can hide him on Somalia's lawless soil and be in a strongerposition to negotiate a ransom.
Three U.S. warships were within easy reach of the lifeboat on Saturday. The pirates had threatened to kill Phillips if attacked.
On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the five hostages was killed.
Early Saturday, the pirates holding Phillips in the lifeboat fired a few shots at a small U.S. Navy vesselthat had approached, a U.S. military official said on condition ofanonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The official said the U.S. sailors did not return fire, theNavy vessel turned away and no one was hurt. He said the vessel had notbeen attempting a rescue. The pirates are believed armed with pistolsand AK-47 assault rifles.
Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swimfor his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automaticweapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Department officialsspeaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized totalk about the unfolding operations.
"When I spoke to the crew, they won't consider it done whenthey board a plane and come home," Maersk President John Reinhart saidfrom Norfolk, Virginia before news of Phillips' rescue. "They won'tconsider it done until the captain is back, nor will we."
In Phillips' hometown, the Rev. Charles Danielson of the St.Thomas Church said before the news broke that the congregation wouldcontinue to pray for Phillips and his family, who are members, and hewould encourage "people to find hope in the triumph of good over evil."
Reinhart said he spoke with Phillips' wife, Andrea, who issurrounded by family and two company employees who were sent to supporther.
"She's a brave woman," Reinhart said. "And she has one favor toask: 'Do what you have to do to bring Richard home safely.' That meansdon't make a mistake, folks. We have to be perfect in our execution."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times