NAIROBI, Kenya - Somali pirates vowed retaliation Monday for the deaths of three colleagues killed by U.S. navy snipers in the rescue of an American sea captain Sunday. Their anger raised fears for the safety of some 230 foreign sailors still held hostage in more than a dozen ships anchored off lawless Somalia.
"From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them (the hostages)," Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old pirate, told The Associated Press from one of Somalia's piracy hubs, Eyl.
"(U.S. forces have) become our No. 1 enemy."
In Washington, President Barack Obama said he was proud of the U.S. military for successfully rescuing Capt. Richard Phillips.
He also said that the United States must halt the increasing threat of piracy.
Sunday's nighttime operation was a remarkable achievement for snipers on a rolling warship in choppy seas, but few experts believe the victory will quell a rising tide of attacks in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
The stunning resolution came after pirates had agreed to let the USS Bainbridge tow their powerless lifeboat out of rough water. A fourth pirate surrendered earlier Sunday and could face life in an American prison. He had been seeking medical attention for a wound to his hand, military officials said.
Interviewed from Bahrain, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command chief Vice-Admiral Bill Gortney said navy SEAL snipers killed three pirates with single shots shortly after sailors on the Bainbridge saw the hostage-takers "with their heads and shoulders exposed."
U.S. officials said snipers got the go-ahead to fire after one pirate held an AK-47 close to Phillips' back. The military officials asked not to be named because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.
"(The snipers are) extremely, extremely well-trained," Gortney told NBC's "Today" show, saying the shooting was ordered by the captain of the Bainbridge.
The SEALs arrived on the scene by parachuting from their aircraft into the sea, and were picked up by the Bainbridge, a senior U.S. official said.
He said negotiations with the pirates had been "going up and down." The official, asking not to be identified because he, too, was not authorized to discuss this on the record, said the pirates were "becoming increasingly agitated in the rough waters; they weren't getting what they wanted."
Just as it was getting dark, pirates fired a tracer bullet "toward the Bainbridge," further heightening tensions, the official said.
News of Phillips' rescue caused his crew in Kenya to break into wild cheers and brought tears to the eyes of those in Phillips' hometown of Underhill, Vt., half a world away from the Indian Ocean drama. It was not immediately known when or how Phillips would return home.
Obama called Phillips' courage "a model for all Americans" and said he was pleased with the rescue, but added the U.S. still needed help from other countries to deal with piracy.
Sunday's blow to the pirates' lucrative activities is unlikely to stop them, simply because of the size of the vast area, stretching from the Gulf of Aden and the coast of Somalia. But it could raises tensions in an already lawless area.
"This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it," said Gortney.
A Somali pirate agreed.
"Every country will be treated the way it treats us. In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying," Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the Somali town of Gaan, said Monday. "We will retaliate (for) the killings of our men."
Later Monday, six mortar shells were fired toward the airport in the Somali capital of Mogadishu as a plane carrying a U.S. congressman took off, a police officer said.
New Jersey Democrat Donald Payne had met with Somalia's president and prime minister for a one-day visit to discuss piracy and security issues. The officer said Payne's plane took off safely and none of the mortar shells landed in the airport.
The U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama had put up a fight Wednesday when pirates boarded the ship, surprising the invaders. Until then, Somali pirates had become used to meeting no resistance once they boarded a ship in search of million-dollar ransoms.
Ship owners often do not arm their crews, in many cases because of the cargo. A Saudi supertanker hijacked last year carried two million barrels of oil, and a gunshot could have triggered an explosion.
As dramatic as each hijacking is, Somali pirates still have only attacked a small fraction of the 20,000 ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden each year. Going around Africa to bypass the pirate-infested gulf can rack up massive costs and add up to two weeks to the voyage.