Rescue: Maersk-Alabama Captain Richard Phillips, right, with Commander Frank Castellano of the USS Bainbridge (US Navy)
Somali pirates have vowed retribution against US and French vessels and crews after this morning’s dramatic rescue of an American cargo ship captain by US Navy SEALs commandos.
Three pirates were shot dead and another was captured during the operation to free Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips.
Captain Phillips, who was held hostage in a lifeboat for more than four days, is now on board a US Navy vessel and is reported to be unhurt.
The US military says US President Barack Obama personally authorised the use of “appropriate force” against the pirates.
But fears that the escalation of the conflict would worsen the situation off the Horn of Africa were backed up this morning when a pirate spokesman gave a statement to the Reuters news agency.
Referring to this morning’s incident and the freeing of several French hostages in another raid which left two pirates dead, the statement said; “The French and Americans will regret starting this killing.”
“We do not kill, but take only ransom. We shall do something to anyone we see as French or American from now,” Hussein, a pirate, told Reuters by satellite phone.
“We cannot know how or whether our friends on the lifeboat died, but this will not stop us from hijacking,” he added.
A US Navy commander made a split-second decision to fire on the pirates because he believed that Captain Phillips, who tried to escape on Friday, faced imminent danger amid tense hostage talks with his captors and deteriorating sea conditions.
“They were pointing the AK-47s at the captain,” Vice-Admiral William Gortney, head of the US Naval Central Command, said in a Pentagon briefing from Bahrain.
“The on-scene commander took it as the captain was in imminent danger and then made that decision (to kill the pirates) and he had the authorities to make that decision and he had seconds to make that decision.”
Analysts say the violent end to the kidnap drama is unlikely to stem piracy in the region.
Admiral Rick Gurnon is the president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy where Captain Phillips trained.
“I don’t think that this will have any deterrent value at all to the Somalis,” he said.
“They’re desperate people who have a business model that works for them.
“You buy lottery tickets and you lose most of the time, but you still buy them. You still might have a million-dollar winner – that’s the way they’re going to look at it.
“We’ve got to figure out a way, in an international community, to, in my opinion, arm the crews, increase the number of warships that are there on scene, reduce the ability of the Somalis to have ships anchored off the coast in a safe haven and be unable to get at them.
“Those are the areas that perpetuate this pirate menace.”
Vice-Admiral Gortney agrees that the killings of the three pirates could escalate tensions.
“There’s second and third-order effects to every action, and this could escalate violence in this part of the world,” he said. “No question about it.”
An Australian-based international law professor and maritime specialist believes an escalation in force against pirates will increase the number of violent incidents.
Australian National University Professor Don Rothwell says the United States must commit more forces to the Indian Ocean.
“Once there’s an escalation of force by the combined task force … there is a concern that the pirates will then just ramp up their use of force,” he said.
“Part of the problem is that many of the merchant ships that are sailing through these areas are effectively unarmed, the crew are very lightly armed just to protect themselves, but really have no real capacity to protect the ships themselves.
“So unless the combined task force and the Americans in particular are prepared to deploy more forces and enable ships into this area, this could be one of the consequences of these events.”
Former US Navy defence lawyer Charles Swift says the captured pirate should be tried in the US.
“Both under international law, and under our US code, we have jurisdiction over the crime of piracy when committed against our vessels,” he said.