***UPDATE 9:32AM EST*** 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 on the high seas.
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."
***UPDATE 6:36PM*** CNN is reporting that Navy sharpshooters were secretly parachuted onto the fantail of the USS Bainbridge and hid there, out of view of the pirates. When their commanders determined that Captain Phillips was "in imminent danger," the snipers went into action. At the moment that two of the pirates came into view with one aiming an AK-47 at Phillips, the sharpshooters shot each of them in the head.
The USS Bainbridge was about 25-30 meters away from the 18-foot lifeboat holding the pirates and Phillips, according to the Armed Forces Press Service.
During a Pentagon briefing in Bahrain, Vice Adm. William Gortney, head of the U.S. Naval Central Command, said:
"The snipers positioned on the fantail of the Bainbridge observed one of the pirates in the pilot house -- and two pirates with their head and shoulders exposed -- and one of the pirates had the AK47 (assault rifle) leveled at the captain's back."
***UPDATE 5:06PM*** U.S. Navy snipers took action after a commander concluded that pirates were about to kill Captain Phillips.
"They were pointing the AK-47s at the captain," said Gortney during the briefing.
Gortney also warned that the killing of the pirates could have a dangerous ripple effect in the region, where pirate attacks are common:
"This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it."
Indeed, some pirates vowed revenge for the shooting, reports Reuters:
Somali pirates were quick to vow revenge over the shooting of their comrades, as well as a French military assault to rescue a yacht on Friday.
"The French and the 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.
Here is video of the news conference:
***UPDATE 4:16PM*** CNN is now saying that their report about Phillips jumping overboard is inaccurate. Navy SEALs believed Phillips was in imminent danger when they shot the three pirates holding him hostage. The operation and use of force was personally approved by President Obama:
Capt. Richard Phillips was in "imminent danger" of being killed before U.S. Special Operations forces shot the pirates in an operation personally approved by President Barack Obama, U.S. officials said.
Phillips' crew, who said they had escaped after he offered himself as a hostage, erupted in cheers aboard their ship docked in Mombasa, Kenya. Some waved an American flag and fired flares in celebration.
Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, was not hurt in several minutes of gunfire and the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet said he was resting comfortably on a U.S. warship after receiving a medical exam.
"I'm just the byline. The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home," Phillips said by phone to Maersk Line Limited President and CEO John Reinhart, the company head told reporters. A photo released by the Navy showed Phillips unharmed and shaking hands with the commanding officer of the USS Bainbridge.
***UPDATE 3:33PM*** According to a report by CNN, citing a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the situation, Captain Phillips jumped overboard from the lifeboat in which he was held hostage and U.S. Navy SEALs took this opportunity to take out three of the four pirates who kidnapped him. The fourth pirate has been taken into custody.
FROM AP: 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.
A government official and others in Somali with knowledge of the situation had reported hours earlier that negotiations for Phillips' release had broken down.
The district commissioner of the central Mudug region said talks went on all day Saturday, with clan elders from his area talking by satellite telephone and through a translator with Americans, but collapsed late Saturday night.
"The negotiations between the elders and American officials have broken down. The reason is American officials wanted to arrest the pirates in Puntland and elders refused the arrest of the pirates," said the commissioner, Abdi Aziz Aw Yusuf. He said he organized initial contacts between the elders and the Americans.
Two other Somalis, one involved in the negotiations and another in contact with the pirates, also said the talks collapsed because of the U.S. insistence that the pirates be arrested and brought to justice.
Phillips' crew of 19 American sailors reached safe harbor in Kenya's northeast port 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.
As the pirates shot in the air, Phillips told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men, crew members said.
Phillips was then held hostage in an enclosed lifeboat that was closely watched by U.S. warships and a helicopter 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.
Before Phillips was freed, a pirate who said he was associated with the gang that held Phillips, Ahmed Mohamed Nur, told The Associated Press that the pirates had reported that "helicopters continue to fly over their heads in the daylight and in the night they are under the focus of a spotlight from a warship."
He spoke by satellite phone from Harardhere, a port and pirate stronghold where a fisherman said helicopters flew over the town Sunday morning and a warship was looming on the horizon. The fisherman, Abdi Sheikh Muse, said that could be an indication the lifeboat may be near to shore.
The U.S. Navy had assumed the pirates would try to get their hostage to shore, where they can hide him on Somalia's lawless soil and be in a stronger position 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 vessel that had approached, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The official said the U.S. sailors did not return fire, the Navy vessel turned away and no one was hurt. He said the vessel had not been attempting a rescue. The pirates are believed armed with pistols and AK-47 assault rifles.
Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat Friday and tried to swim for his freedom but was recaptured when a pirate fired an automatic weapon at or near him, according to U.S. Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the unfolding operations.
"When I spoke to the crew, they won't consider it done when they board a plane and come home," Maersk President John Reinhart said from Norfolk, Virginia before news of Phillips' rescue. "They won't consider 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 would continue to pray for Phillips and his family, who are members, and he would encourage "people to find hope in the triumph of good over evil."
Reinhart said he spoke with Phillips' wife, Andrea, who is surrounded by family and two company employees who were sent to support her.
"She's a brave woman," Reinhart said. "And she has one favor to ask: 'Do what you have to do to bring Richard home safely.' That means don't make a mistake, folks. We have to be perfect in our execution."