Trio of shots ended sea standoff

April 13, 2009 9:43:05 AM PDT
Adm. William Gortney said Monday that it took only three shots for Navy snipers to kill the trio of pirates holding captain Richard Phillips hostage on a lifeboat drifting in the high sea. Interviewed from Bahrain, Gortney said the takedown happened shortly after the hostage-takers were observed by sailors aboard the USS Bainbridge "with their heads and shoulders exposed."

Asked how the snipers could have killed each pirate with a single shot in the darkness, Gortney described them as "extremely, extremely well-trained." He told NBC's "Today" show the shooting by the snipers was ordered by the captain of the Bainbridge after the pirates "exposed themselves" to attack.

Military officials were widely praising the snipers for three flawless shots, which they described as remarkable, coming at night and from the stern of a ship on rolling waters.

Defense officials also indicated, speaking anonymously, that the Navy snipers got the go-ahead to fire after one of the pirates was seen holding an AK-47 so close to Phillip's back that the weapon appeared to be touching him. Two other pirates popped their heads up, giving snipers all three of their targets, one official said.

The military officials asked not to be named because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.

They said that a fourth pirate who survived was believed to be between 16 and 20 years old, and had in effect surrendered before the sniper rescue.

One official said he jumped into a small craft that had been taking food to the lifeboat, and asked to be taken to the Bainbridge. He also needed medical help because he had been stabbed in the hand on the Maersk Alabama in the initial standoff with crew members when the pirates attempted unsuccessfully to take over the cargo vessel, officials said.

Shane Murphy, a crew member of the Maersk Alabama, told a news conference: "We are lucky to be out of it with every one of us alive. We never had to fight to take our ship back. We never gave up."

The Navy released images of the scene from an unmanned drone, Scan Eagle. It showed that the snipers had positioned themselves on the fantail of the Bainbridge. The snipers fired simultaneously. One of the pirates was in the pilot house.

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