MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somali pirates on Monday vowed to retaliate for the deaths of three colleagues who were shot dead by U.S. Navy snipers hours before in a daring nighttime assault that freed a 53-year-old American captain.
The Navy Seals late Sunday rescued freighter Capt. Richard Phillips, who had been held by pirates on a lifeboat that drifted in the Indian Ocean for five days.
"Every country will be treated the way it treats us," said Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the pirate den of Gaan, a central Somali town.
"In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying," he told The Associated Press by telephone. "We will retaliate for the killings of our men."
He gave no details and it was not clear in what way the pirates could retaliate, though some fear they could take their revenge on the hundreds of other foreign nationals they hold on seized ships.
The rescue dealt a blow to pirates who regularly seize passing ships and hold them captive until multimillion dollar ransoms are paid. But it is unlikely to help quell the region's growing pirate threat, which has turned the Gulf of Aden and the waterways along Somalia's coast into some of the most dangerous shipping lanes on the planet.
Pirates currently hold more than a dozen foreign ships, most moored along the Horn of Africa nation's long coast, with about 230 foreign sailors from Russia to the Philippines.
The American rescue followed a similar operation Friday carried out by French navy commandos, who stormed a pirate-held sailboat, the Tanit, in a shootout at sea that killed two pirates and freed four French hostages. The French owner of the vessel was also killed in the assault.
Residents of the Somali town of Harardhere said tensions were growing there.
Abdullahi Haji Jama, who owns a clothing store in the town, said: "We fear that the pirates may retaliate against the foreign nationals they are holding."
But he also said people feared "any revenge taken by the pirates against foreign nationals could bring more attacks from the foreign navies, perhaps on our villages."
Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said the American operation "could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it."
Jamac Habeb, a 30-year-old self-proclaimed pirate, told The Associated Press that the three pirates' deaths were "a painful experience." Speaking from the pirate hub, Eyl, he added: "this will be a good lesson for us."
"From now on, if we capture foreign ships and their respective countries try to attack us, we will kill them," Habeb said. "Now they became our number one enemy," he said of U.S. forces.
So far, at least, it has been rare for Somali pirates to harm captive foreign crews.
Several years ago, a crew member of a Taiwanese fishing boat hijacked for six months was killed by pirates, but no reason was given but it appeared to be an isolated incident, according to Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. No reason was given but it appeared to be an isolated incident, he said.
Somalia has been engulfed in fighting and anarchy since the 1991 overthrow of Siad Barre, and remains today a country with no effective government, a nation ruled by tribal clans.
The piracy scourge appears to have evolved partly out of an attempt by Somali fishermen to protect their waters against illegal foreign trawlers who were destroying their livelihoods. Some of the vigilantes morphed into pirates, lured by the large profits they could win in ransoms.
Somalia's prime minister welcomed the U.S. Navy's operation Sunday.
"The Somali government wanted the drama to end in a peaceful way, but anyone who is involved in this latest case had the choice to use violence or other means," Abdulkhadir Walayo, the prime minister's spokesman, told The Associated Press. "Anyway, we see it will be a good lesson for the pirates or anyone else involved in this dirty business."
Pirates were defiant though, vowing the events would not stop them form seizing more ships.
One pirate vowed the events would not stop them from targeting more ships.
"The mere killing of three and capturing one will not make us change our mind," said one pirate holding a German ship anchored in the Somali town of Harardhere who refused to give his name. "We are determined to continue our business regardless of the recent killings and arrests."