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The U.S. Navy operation that freed American ship captain Richard Phillips Sunday off the coast of Somalia was the second time in the past week that military force was used to free hostages after negotiations broke down with pirates.
The Somali government of President Sharif Sheik Ahmed was pleased with the rescue, telling reporters that the outcome sends a clear signal to criminals that their activities will no longer be tolerated by the international community.
The Navy operation ended four days of high-seas drama that began on Wednesday, when the pirates attempted to hijack the U.S.-flagged container vessel about 450 kilometers off the northern coast of Somalia.
The Alabama's American crew overpowered the pirates and re-took control of the ship. But the pirates escaped in an enclosed lifeboat, taking the captain, Richard Phillips, with them. The lifeboat ran out of fuel the next day and a stand-off ensued with the pirates demanding a $2 million ransom for Phillips and safe passage back to Somalia.
A U.S. Navy destroyer arrived on the scene, and talks to free Phillips began between the pirates and the U.S. military aided by a negotiating team from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On Friday, the American captain jumped overboard and attempted to swim to the destroyer, but he was quickly re-captured.
By Saturday, there were three U.S. warships within reach of the lifeboat. The hijackers threatened to kill Phillips if they were attacked. Clan elders intervened, hoping to end the stand-off by negotiating a deal in which the hijackers would release their hostage with no ransom paid. The pirates, in turn, would not be arrested.
According to U.S. military officials, President Barack Obama had authorized Navy commanders to use force if they believed Phillips was in danger. When one of the pirates pointed a rifle at Phillips on Sunday, Navy snipers opened fire.
Last week, the French government also negotiated with pirates to free a hijacked French yacht. Somali pirates had captured the yacht on April 4, taking the boat and several adults and a three year-old boy hostage.
But French troops raided the yacht on Thursday, killing two pirates and arresting three more. The owner of the yacht was also killed. Officials in Paris say the rescue mission was launched when talks with broke down and the pirates made specific threats against their French captives.
France rejects paying ransoms and has used military force twice before to free hostages in Somalia. Pirates, who have seized dozens of vessels off the coast of Somalia in the past year, usually release the crew unharmed after a ransom is paid.
Somalia expert Afyare Elmi of the University of Alberta in Canada says he believes pirates will be tempted to take revenge for the loss of their comrades. "There is no need to worry about what Somalis or Somali clans might do because none of them, as far as I know, morally condone what the pirates are doing. What can logically be expected here is that the pirates themselves might be more aggressive in their future attacks and they might particularly be tough with specific countries that they think would be aggressive with them," he said.
Elmi says the piracy problem in Somalia requires a political and economical solution, not a military one. Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world and has not had a functioning government for the past 18 years.