Captain Richard Phillips, held by Somali pirates since Wednesday, has been freed.
The captain was uninjured and in good condition and three of the four pirates holding him were killed, in a swift firefight, the official said. A fourth pirate was wounded and taken aboard the USS Bainbridge.
The rescue was carried out in a daring night-time raid by Navy Seals. 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.
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The Commander in Chief said he was pleased that Phillips was rescued, adding that the United States needs help from other countries to deal with the threat of piracy and to hold pirates accountable.Obama said Phillips had courage that was "a model for all Americans."
"I'm just the byline. The heroes are the Navy, the Seals and those that have brought me home," Phillips said to his boss, Maersk Line Limited President and CEO John Reinhart, who relayed the phone message to reporters.
Phillips was in "imminent danger" of being killed before snipers shot the pirates in an operation authorized by President Barack Obama, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said.
The pirates were armed with AK-47s and small-caliber pistols and were pointing the rifles at the captain when the commander of the nearby USS Bainbridge gave the order to open fire.
Gortney, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said the White House had given "very clear guidance and authority" to take action if Phillips' life was in danger.
Maersk Line Limited President and CEO John Reinhart said in a news release that the U.S. government informed the company around 1:30 p.m. EDT Sunday that Phillips had been rescued. Reinhart said the company called Phillips' wife, Andrea, to tell her the news.
A spokeswoman for the Phillips family, Alison McColl, said Phillips and his wife, Andrea, spoke by phone shortly after he was freed.
"I think you can all imagine their joy and what a happy moment that was for them," McColl said outside of the Phillips home in Underhill, Vermont.
"The Phillips family wants to thank you all for your caring and concern," said McColl. "This is truly a very happy Easter for the family."
Phillips was first taken aboard the Norfolk-based USS Bainbridge and then flown to the San Diego-based USS Boxer for the medial exam, 5th Fleet spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said.
Christensen said Phillips was now "resting comfortably."
When Phillips' crew heard the news aboard their ship in the port of Mombasa, they placed an American flag over the rail of the top of the Maersk Alabama and whistled and pumped their fists in the air. Crew fired a bright red flare into the sky from the ship.
The captured pirate face life in a U.S. prison.
"He's in military custody right now," FBI spokesman John Miller said. "That will change as this becomes more of a criminal issue than a military issue."
A government official and others in Somalia with knowledge of the situation had reported hours earlier that negotiations for Phillips' release had broken down.
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. The pirates had threatened to kill Phillips if attacked.
Three U.S. warships were within easy reach of the lifeboat on Saturday. 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.
Maersk Line said before news of the rescue broke that "the U.S. Navy had sight contact" of Phillips -- 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 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. On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the five hostages was killed.
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.
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.
"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, 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."