MOMBASA, Kenya - Cheering and guarded by Navy Seals, the crew of an American ship reached a Kenyan port Saturday evening without their captain, still held hostage by Somali pirates in a lifeboat hundreds of miles from shore.
Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vermont, was seized Wednesday when he thwarted the takeover of the 17,000-ton U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, which was carrying food aid for hungry people in Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda.
A U.S. military official said that early Saturday the pirates in the lifeboat believed to be armed with pistols and AK-47s fired a few shots at a small Navy vessel that had approached, possibly to conduct reconnaissance. No one was hurt and the Navy vessel turned away, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The U.S. sailors did not return fire, he said. The U.S. had not approached in a rescue attempt, he said.
Crew members said that as the pirates boarded his cargo ship, Phillips had told his crew to lock themselves in a cabin and surrendered himself to safeguard his men.
"He saved our lives!" second mate Ken Quinn, of Bradenton, Florida, declared from the ship as it docked in the resort and port city of Mombasa. "He's a hero."
The crew later overpowered some of the pirates but the Somalis fled with Phillips to an enclosed lifeboat, the relatives said.
Quinn told reporters the experience was "terrifying and exciting at the same time."
Not everybody on the ship was ecstatic, however. One man looked out at the assembled journalists who were shouting questions at him, and after a pause said: "You're a bunch of ... leeches." Later, facing the crowd again from the ship, he added: "Don't disrespect these men like that. They've got a man out on a lifeboat dying so we can live."
The Italian tugboat was hijacked in a new attack in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia's north coast Saturday as it was pulling barges, said Shona Lowe, a spokeswoman at NATO's Northwood maritime command center outside London.
The Foreign Ministry in Rome confirmed 10 of the 16 crew members are Italian. The others are five Romanians and a Croatian, according to Micoperi, the Italian company that owns the ship.
"We received an e-mail from the ship saying 'We are being attacked by pirates,' and after that, nothing," Silvio Bartolotti, the owner of the company, told The Associated Press.
The two hijackings did not take place near each other.
"This is just the Somali pirate machine in full flow," said Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, founder of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Ltd..
The president of the company that owns the Maersk Alabama called it a crime scene and said that crew members had to remain aboard while the FBI investigates the attack.
John Reinhart of Maersk Shipping Line said crew members were provided phones so they could stay in touch with family members.
Phillips jumped out of the lifeboat and tried to swim for his freedom on Friday 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 sensitive, unfolding operations.
A Nairobi-based diplomat who receives regular briefings on the situation said the four pirates holding Phillips had tried to summon other pirates from the Somali mainland. The diplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said that pirates had been trying to reach the lifeboat.
He said that at least two American ships and U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft had been attempting to deter pirate ships and skiffs from contact with the lifeboat but he did not know if the pirates and Navy ships had come into contact.
Abdirahman Osman, a resident of the town who says he knows the pirates well, said some had returned home later Saturday, looking tired. He said the pirates told him they had abandoned their plan to help fellow bandits on the lifeboat because it was surrounded by U.S. forces.
A Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity declined to comment on whether the U.S. Navy had turned back the pirates.
The captain of the USS Bainbridge has been getting direction from FBI hostage negotiators and talks have taken place between him and the pirates, U.S. officials said.
The Bainbridge was joined Friday by the USS Halyburton, which has helicopters, and the huge, amphibious USS Boxer was expected soon after, the defense officials said. The Boxer, the flagship of a multination anti-piracy task force, resembles a small aircraft carrier. It has a crew of more than 1,000, a mobile hospital, missile launchers and about two dozen helicopters and attack planes.
On Friday, the French navy freed a sailboat seized off Somalia last week by other pirates, but one of the hostages was killed.
The vice president of the Philippines, the nation with the largest number of sailors held captive by Somali pirates, appealed for the safety of hostages to be ensured in the standoff.
"We hope that before launching any tactical action against the pirates, the welfare of every hostage is guaranteed and ensured," said Vice President Noli de Castro. "Moreover, any military action is best done in consultation with the United Nations to gain the support and cooperation of other countries."
France's defense minister promised an autopsy and investigation into the death of the hostage killed during the commando operation, which freed four other captives and was prompted by threats the passengers would be executed. Two pirates also were killed. Three pirates were captured and are to be brought to France for criminal proceedings.
Somali pirates are holding about a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog group. The bureau lists 66 attacks since January, not including the Alabama.