MOMBASA, Kenya (AP) - Somali pirates were back to business as usual Tuesday, defiantly seizing four more ships with 60 hostages after U.S. sharpshooters rescued an American freighter captain. "No one can deter us," one bandit boasted.
The freed skipper, Richard Phillips, will return home to the United States on Wednesday, after reuniting with his 19-man crew in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, according to the shipping company Maersk Line Ltd.
The brigands grabbed more ships and hostages to show they would not be intimidated by President Barack Obama's pledge to confront the high-seas bandits, according to a pirate based in the Somali coastal town of Harardhere.
"Our latest hijackings are meant to show that no one can deter us from protecting our waters from the enemy because we believe in dying for our land," Omar Dahir Idle told The Associated Press by telephone. "Our guns do not fire water. I am sure we will avenge."
On Monday, Obama vowed to "halt the rise of piracy" without saying exactly how the U.S. and allies would do it.
The pirates have vowed vengeance for five colleagues slain by U.S. and French forces in two hostage rescues since Friday.
"The recent American operation, French navy attack on our colleagues or any other operation mean nothing to us," said Idle, 26, whose gang holds a German freighter with 24 hostages.
The pirates say they are fighting illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters but have come to operate hundreds of miles from there in a sprawling 1.1 million square-mile danger zone.
The top U.S. military officer, Adm. Michael Mullen, said he takes the pirates' threats seriously, but "we're very well prepared to deal with anything like that." Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke on ABC's "Good Morning America."
After a lull at the beginning of the year because of rough seas, the pirates since the end of February have attacked 78 ships, hijacked 19 of them and hold 16 vessels with more than 300 hostages from a dozen or so countries.
Pirates can extort $1 million and more for each ship and crew. Kenya estimates they raked in $150 million last year.
A flotilla of warships from nearly a dozen countries has patrolled the Gulf of Aden and nearby Indian Ocean waters for months. They have halted many attacks but say the area is so vast they can't stop all hijackings.
The Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is the shortest route from Asia to Europe and one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, crossed by more than 20,000 ships each year. The alternative route around the continent's southern Cape of Good Hope takes up to two weeks longer at huge expense.
In an unusual nighttime raid, pirates seized the Greek-managed bulk carrier MV Irene E.M. before dawn Tuesday. Hours later, they commandeered the Lebanese-owned cargo ship MV Sea Horse.
On Sunday or Monday, they took two Egyptian fishing trawlers. Maritime officials said the Irene carried 21 to 23 Filipino crew and the fishing boats 36 fishermen, all believed to be Egyptian. A carrier the size of the Sea Horse would need at least a dozen crew, although the exact number was not immediately available.
NATO spokeswoman Shona Lowe said pirates in three or four speedboats captured the Sea Horse off Somalia's eastern coast.
The Irene, flagged in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, was sailing from the Middle East to South Asia, said Noel Choong of the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog. U.S. Navy Lt. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said the Irene carried 23 Filipino crew.
A maritime security contractor said the Irene sent a distress signal about a suspicious vessel approaching. That rapidly turned into an attack and then a hijacking.
"They tried to call in support on the emergency channels, but they never got any response," the contractor said on condition of anonymity because it is a sensitive security issue.
The Yemeni Embassy in Washington said its coast guard exchanged gunfire Monday with 14 Somali pirates who had hijacked a 23-foot Yemeni fishing vessel. Its forces freed 13 Yemeni hostages and detained two pirates, while the rest fled on a boat, the embassy said.
The Egyptian boats were taken in the gulf off Somalia's northern coast. Said Mursi, Egypt's ambassador to Somalia who is based in Kenya, said the trawlers probably did not have licenses to fish Somali waters. "From my experience, I think that they were illegally fishing," he told The Associated Press.
Commercial fishing boats have been illegally harvesting Somalia's rich and varied sea life, including sought-after yellowfin tuna, since the country collapsed into lawlessness in the 1990s. The United Nations estimates the illegal fishing costs the Horn of Africa nation $300 million annually.
The U.N. envoy to Somalia called piracy a "pandemic" and urged the bandits' financial backers to be identified quickly and held accountable.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah praised the action by Washington and Paris, calling it "a strong message" to the pirates and their backers.
Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vt. was steaming Tuesday toward Kenya aboard the USS Bainbridge, where he is being debriefed by FBI officials and maritime experts, said a senior U.S. defense official in Washington. He said the investigators are gathering evidence of what each captor did for possible criminal investigations and to better prepare for future hostage situations. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Phillips will take a chartered flight to meet his family at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., for a private reception, according to Maersk. He was rescued Sunday when U.S. Navy SEALs snipers killed three pirates holding him hostage on a lifeboat, and a fourth surrendered. Phillips had been held captive for five days after exchanging himself to safeguard his crew during a thwarted hijacking of the Alabama by the pirates last week.
The pirates who attacked the Alabama were between 17 and 19, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
"Untrained teenagers with heavy weapons," Gates said in a speech at the Marine Corps War College. "Everybody in the room knows the consequences of that."
Most ships are hijacked without a shot fired. Freed hostages report being treated well.
The U.S. is considering new options to fight piracy, including adding Navy gunships along the Somali coast and launching a campaign to disable pirate "mother ships," according to military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made yet.
U.S. officials are considering whether to bring the fourth pirate involved in the Alabama attack to the United States or turn him over to Kenya for prosecution. Both piracy and hostage-taking carry life prison sentences under U.S. law.
Associated Press writers contributing this report include Pauline Jelinek in Washington, Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia; Michelle Faul, Malkhadir M. Muhumed, Tom Maliti and Todd Pitman in Kenya; Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Adam Schreck in Manama, Bahrain, Lara Jakes, Anne Gearan and Devlin Barrett in Washington; Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, John Curran in Burlington, Vermont and Maggie Michael in Cairo.