MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia’s militant Islamist rebel group al Shabaab said Monday it fired mortars at a plane carrying a U.S. lawmaker, a day after U.S. snipers killed three Somali pirates and freed the American ship captain they had been holding hostage.
An al Shabaab spokesman said his group fired at the plane carrying Representative Donald Payne as he left the anarchic Horn of Africa country following a rare one-day visit by a U.S. official. Payne’s plane took off safely and no-one was hurt.
The successful rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, who had been held by pirates for five days in a drifting lifeboat after their attempt to hijack the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama failed, was hailed in the United States as a “feel-good” story that temporarily lifted the country’s spirits in gloomy economic times.
Three U.S. snipers each fired a single shot virtually simultaneously, each killing his target. A fourth pirate was captured alive.
The successful conclusion boosted President Barack Obama, who had authorized the U.S. navy to use force if the commander on the spot felt Phillips’s life was in danger.
Obama, in brief comments Monday, called Phillips a hero and reiterated that he was resolved to work with other countries to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia.
“We’re going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks,” Obama said. “We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise.”
More than 250 hostages of many nationalities are still being held along the Somali coast by pirates who have seized dozens of vessels, from tankers to yachts, in recent months.
Helicopters once again flew over pirate bases near Eyl on the Somali coast overnight after Phillips’ rescue.
“They killed our friends on the lifeboat and we thought helicopters would bomb us in Eyl last night,” a pirate in Eyl, who called himself Farah, told Reuters.
“We were mourning for dead friends and then roaring planes came -- grief upon grief. America has become our new enemy.”
Al Shabaab, which condemns both piracy and anti-piracy patrols by international navies off Somalia, said the attack on Payne’s plane was a message to the United States but did not directly link it to the hostage issue.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Washington was encouraging states to prosecute suspected pirates and working with the shipping industry to avoid future hijacks. He cautioned that the problem would not be solved overnight.
Responding to threats by the pirates’ to kill foreign hostages in retaliation for the rescue, Wood said: “These folks are bandits. They’re lawless.”
Phillips was the first American taken by pirates who have plundered ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean for years.
The U.S. Navy said the decision to shoot his kidnappers was a split-second one, taken because he appeared to be in imminent danger.
“They were pointing the AK-47s at the captain,” Vice Admiral William Gortney, head of the U.S. Naval Central Command, said.
Phillips contacted his family after the rescue, received a medical check, and rested aboard the USS Boxer.
His crew set off flares, hoisted an American flag and jumped for joy at the news of their captain’s rescue. They called on Obama to take the lead in combating piracy.
The Maersk Alabama, carrying food aid for the region, was attacked far out in the Indian Ocean Wednesday, but its 20 American crew regained control. Phillips volunteered to go with the pirates in a lifeboat in exchange for the crew’s safety.
So far, pirates have generally treated hostages well, sometimes roasting goat meat for them and even letting them phone loved ones. The worst violence has been the occasional beating. No hostages are known to have been killed by pirates.
Writing by Alan Elsner. Additional reporting by David Morgan and Randall Mikkelsen in Washington, Abdi Sheikh and Ibrahim Mohamed in Mogadishu, Jack Kimball, Celestine Achieng and Njuwa Maina in Mombasa, Andrew Cawthorne and Abdiaziz Hassan in Nairobi, Abdiqani Hassan in Garowe; editing by Andrew Roche and Frances Kerry