An American ship captain was in "imminent danger" when U.S. forces shot and killed three armed pirates holding him hostage on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean, a naval official said.
"If he was not in imminent danger, they were not to take this sort of action," said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. "He had a weapon aimed at him, and the on-scene commander saw that the weapon was aimed at him."
As one of the four pirates who had been holding Capt. Richard Phillips, 53, negotiated onboard the USS Bainbridge, special forces on the same U.S. ship saw Phillips move to the side of the lifeboat to relieve himself, a senior U.S. official told George Stephanopoulos, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent.
At that point, forces saw their opportunity and killed the other three pirates on the lifeboat, the source told Stephanopoulos.
The special forces were on the scene and authorized to take action "in extremis" as a result of President Obama's approval of a recommendation from his top military advisers Friday, Stephanopoulos reported.
At the time of the shooting, the snipers had a clear line of sight on all three pirates, and so they took simultaneous shots that hit all three, another U.S. official said.
The senior official told Stephanopoulos that the rescue was "going to make a great movie."
Phillips, held hostage on the lifeboat since Wednesday, was "safe and sound" and doing well, said John Reinhart, president and chief executive officer of Maersk Line Ltd.
Phillips was taken to the nearby guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge after his rescue, a naval statement said, and was later flown to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, where he was able to call his family.
"He's feeling quite good. He's getting some rest and he'll soon be home," Reinhart said. "[Phillips' wife] sends her thanks to the nation, and to all of you for your prayers and your support. She is ecstatic to know that very soon she'll be reunited with her husband."
Onboard Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, now docked in a Kenyan port and being examined as a "crime scene" by the FBI, Phillips' crew cheered, waved American flags and shot off makeshift fireworks.
Crew members have hailed Phillips for giving himself up to the pirates Wednesday to save their lives, and Gortney agreed.
"The actions of Capt. Phillips and the civilian mariners of Maersk Alabama were heroic," Gortney said in a written statement. "They fought back to regain control of their ship, and Capt. Phillips selflessly put his life in the hands of these armed criminals in order to protect his crew."
But Phillips has called his Navy rescuers "the real heroes," Reinhart said.
President Obama phoned Phillips on the USS Boxer and also called Phillips' wife, Andrea Phillips, and family at their home.
In a prepared statement, he hailed the heroism of the military and Phillips.
"I share the country's admiration for the bravery of Capt. Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew," Obama said. "His courage is a model for all Americans."
Andrea Phillips, via a message read by Gortney, suggested she could not wait for her husband's return.
"Your family loves you," Phillips' wife said in the message. "Your family is praying for you. Your family saving a chocolate Easter egg for you, unless your son eats it first."