January 6, 2012, 1:00 pm
U.S. Navy Rescues Iranians Who Were Captured by Pirates
By J. DAVID GOODMAN and ROBERT MACKEY
Video released by the Pentagon showed the capture of 15 suspected Somali pirates who had held 13 Iranian fishermen captive for more than a month in the North Arabian sea.
Updated | 4:32 p.m. The United States Navy rescued 13 Iranians whose fishing vessel was seized by Somali pirates more than a month ago in the North Arabian Sea, the Pentagon announced on Friday.
In a conference call with reporters, Rear Adm. Craig S. Faller, the commander of an American carrier strike group patrolling the area, explained that the U.S.S. Kidd, an American destroyer, intercepted the Iranian-flagged Al Molai on Thursday after receiving a distress call. The 15 pirates on board were convinced to lay down their weapons and surrender to a boarding party from the Kidd.
On Friday, after the pirates were transferred to a detention facility aboard the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier, the crew of the fishing vessel was provided with food and left for home, wearing U.S.S. Kidd baseball caps.
According to the commanding officer of the Kidd, Cmdr. Jennifer L. Ellinger, the Iranian ship’s master initially told the Americans by radio that there were no pirates on board, but he managed to indicate that he was speaking under duress. Then, in what commander Ellinger interpreted as an attempt to speak to the Americans in a language that the pirates could not understand, the captain of the fishing boat said in Urdu — a Pakistani language derived from Persian — that his crew had been physically abused by the pirates and pleaded for help.
Commander Ellinger said that a helicopter sent from the Kidd to get a closer look at the Iranian-flagged ship spotted the pirates on board and a show of force by the destroyer convinced them to surrender.
Two brief video clips released by the Navy showed the pirates waiting to surrender, with their hands in the air, as an American craft approached the fishing vessel just after noon local time on Thursday.
Commander Ellinger said that the Iranians “were extremely grateful” to the sailors who rescued them.
It was the second time in a week that the carrier, which left the Persian Gulf for the North Arabian Sea late last month, found itself at the center of the news during a tense and very public standoff with Iran. On Tuesday the Iranian military warned that it would take unspecified action if the aircraft carrier returned to the gulf.
The Pentagon said the Iranian crew had been held for 40 to 45 days in harsh conditions by 15 pirates, with limited food and water, as the pirates used the Iranian-flagged Al Molai, as a “mother ship” in further raids. “They were held hostage, with limited rations, and we believe were forced against their will to assist the pirates with other piracy operations,” said Josh Schminky, a Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent.
Coming amid an increasingly pitched war of words between Western powers and Iran, the freeing of the Iranians by soldiers from the very same carrier threatened earlier this week offered the United States an unexpected public relations coup. The military statement included photographs and a video posted to YouTube that showed roughly a dozen men in colorful T-shirts standing at the bow of the fishing vessel with their hands raised high above their heads.
“The captain of the Al Molai expressed his sincere gratitude that we came to assist them. He was afraid that without our help, they could have been there for months,” Mr. Schminky said.
It was not immediately clear by what means the rescued men were being returned to Iran.
The rescue of the Iranians appeared to put the Iranian government in an awkward position as it strikes a defiant posture in the face of new economic sanctions attacking its oil exports. On Thursday, Iranian officials called the intensified efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program tantamount to “an economic war,” and vowed to conduct a new round of military drills near the Strait of Hormuz.
The Iranian military, fresh off 10 days of naval exercises near the strait that ended this week, said it would hold a new round of war games soon. The defense minister, Brig. Ahmad Vahidi, in comments reported by the semiofficial Fars news agency late Thursday, said the military’s exercises would be “its greatest naval war games” and would occur “in the same region in the near future.”
U.S. NavyAn American guided-missile destroyer, the Kidd, sat near the Iranian-flagged fishing vessel the Al Molai on Thursday.