12 April 2009

Somalia: U.S. Mariner Freed as Pirates Move to Seychelles

An American merchant ship captain was freed from Somali pirates by U.S. Navy forces Sunday, as a new warning was issued about pirate activity in East African sea lanes near the Seychelles.

The employers of Captain Richard Phillips announced in a statement issued in Virginia in the United States that the U.S. government had informed them at 1.30pm Eastern time that Phillips had been rescued.

Phillips was held hostage after his crew had re-taken his vessel, the container ship, Maersk Alabama, from pirates last week. Phillips and four pirates had been drifting towards the Somali coast in a lifeboat from the Alabama.

CNN International quoted a senior U.S. official as saying three of the pirates had been killed and one captured in a rescue operation. No further details were disclosed. Two U.S. warships had been monitoring the lifeboat.

Also on Sunday, the Lloyd's Register-Fairplay shipping news web site said that "a massively increased multi-national naval presence" north of Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden, was forcing pirates to move south, and that commercial shipping in sea lanes near the Seychelles was now at risk.

"So far, three vessels have already been seized," Lloyds Register-Fairplay reported. "Two sailing yachts, the Tanit - which was rescued by French commandos but in which one marine was killed - and the Serenity have been seized.

"A third vessel, the Seychelles-flagged Indian Ocean Explorer, a research vessel kitted out for underwater photography, has also been seized and is now in pirate hands."

* Update:  The U.S. Navy later announced that Phillips had been freed at approximately 7.19pm (12.19 pm Eastern daylight time).

Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, praised as "heroic" the actions of Phillips and his crew during the hijacking.

"They fought back to regain control of their ship, and Captain Phillips selflessly put his life in the hands of these armed criminals in order to protect his crew,” Gortney said.

Phillips was initially taken aboard the guided missile destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, and then flown to the amphibious assault ship, USS Boxer, where he contacted his family and received a medical evaluation.

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