Saturday, 2:15 PM
US officials ponder attacks on pirate staging areas
By Bryan Bender, Peter Schworm, and John Ellement, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- A day after the dramatic rescue of a Vermont sea captain held captive by Somali pirates, US officials said today they are considering attacking the areas on the Somalia coast where pirates are staging a record number of hijackings.
Pentagon officials said planning was underway to determine how US military forces off the Horn of Africa could go after the pirate network that operates from a series of coastal villages that are thriving from the millions of dollars in ransom money that has been extorted from international shipping companies in recent months.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal planning, said military leaders were acting on orders from President Obama to come up with a more aggressive approach to control the rise in piracy.
Obama, in praising the rescue Sunday of Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk-Alabama by Navy SEALs who shot and killed three of his captors, said his administration was committed to halting the rise of piracy in the area and was "prepared to interdict acts of piracy."
The Pentagon officials said they believe they have sufficient international authority to act militarily in the form of a resolution approved unanimously by the UN Security Council in December giving member nations the authority to use "land-based" operations to combat the pirates.
But a number of leading officials and analysts also expressed concern today that the drumbeat of voices calling for a more muscular approach were focusing too narrowly on a phenomenon that is a symptom of a much larger problem: the failed state of Somalia.
"The idea that you are going to bomb the pirates into the Stone Age is completely naive and it won't work," Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat of Wisconsin who is widely regarded as an expert on the Horn of Africa, said in an interview. "It is a much broader problem that has to do with Somalia itself."
Navy sharpshooters positioned on the fantail of a destroyer buffeted on choppy seas needed just three simultaneous shots to kill the three pirates in the daring high-seas rescue, a Navy official said this morning.
Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said the snipers were given the order to fire after a pirate was seen holding an assault rifle to the head of Phillips, a 53-year-old from Underhill, Vt., who had been held hostage in a lifeboat in the pirate-infested waters.
Gortney's comments shed more light on the dramatic nighttime rescue, which ended a five-day standoff with the heavily armed bandits. It was the first attack on a US-flagged ship in recent memory.
The commander of the destroyer USS Bainbridge believed Phillips was in "imminent danger" when he ordered the shooting, Gortney said this morning in a conference call with reporters. In a split-second decision, the snipers were given the go-ahead to open fire when two other hostage-takers were spotted "with their heads and shoulders exposed," Gortney said.
"The captain's life was in immediate danger," he said in a teleconference from Bahrain.
The Navy SEALs who shot the pirates arrived at the scene by parachuting from an aircraft into the sea, where they were picked up by the Bainbridge, the Associated Press reported.
Gortney said the pirates had made a ransom demand for Phillips's release, and throughout the crisis were threatening to kill him. He said the military had received "very clear guidance and authority" from the White House to take action if they believe the captain's life was in danger.
The Navy said Phillips has contacted his family and is resting comfortably. Phillips's wife, Andrea, is scheduled to speak at a press conference in Burlington, Vt., this afternoon.
Phillips allowed his 19-member crew to go free when he surrendered to the pirates last week, family members said.
The killing of the pirates prompted threats of retaliation from a pirate spokesman. "From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we we will kill them (the hostages)," Jamac Habeb told the AP from one of Somalia's piracy hubs, Eyl. He said US forces have "become our No. 1 enemy."
An airplane carrying a US congressman was fired on today as it took off at the Mogadishu International Airport, the representative's spokeswoman said. "His airplane was fired upon," Kerry McKenny, spokeswoman for US Rep. Donald Payne, Democrat of New Jersey, told CNN.
The ship's first mate, Shane Murphy, a graduate of Masschusetts Maritime Academy and son of a professor at the Bourne college, personally appealed to Obama to take aggressive action against the pirates.
"All these crew members you see here worked as a family to defend our ship. Our captain must be proud of us because we did what he has always trained us to do," he said after his ship reached Kenya. "We did not let our ship go and today we are free and all alive.
"But today we are not sure that we are going to be that lucky next time because it is not always that easy. America should be at the forefront of this ... step in and end piracy because it is now a crisis," he said.