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Russian warship opens fire, takes oil tanker back from pirates

The 23 crewmen are rescued, and Russian media say one pirates is dead and 10 are arrested. The tanker's cargo is worth more than $50 million.

May 06, 2010|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Reporting from Cairo — The fortunes of a band of Somali pirates quickly changed Thursday when a Russian warship opened fire on a hijacked oil tanker, freeing the crew and arresting the bandits, who a day earlier had raced across the Indian Ocean to seize a cargo valued at more than $50 million.

The high-seas battle unfolded after 23 crewmen on the tanker Moscow University sent a distress call and hid from the pirates in a sealed rudder compartment. A Russian destroyer closed in and special forces stormed the vessel at dawn, after marauders shot at a surveillance helicopter, according to the anti-piracy European Union Naval Force.

"The Russian warship, knowing the crew was locked down and safe, returned fire on the pirates," said a statement released by the EU force. "Eventually the pirates surrendered and a boarding team from the Marshal Shaposhnikov [warship] arrived onboard the tanker, captured all the pirates and freed the crew. All the crew are safe and well."

Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news services reported that one pirate was killed and 10 were arrested.

The rescue operation was stunning, ending an ordeal less than 24 hours after pirates seized the 106,474-ton tanker about 350 miles off the Yemeni Island of Socotra. The vessel, owned by Novorossiysk Shipping Co. and carrying 86,000 tons of crude oil, had left Sudan and was bound for China, catching the attention of pirates who have expanded their hunting territory hundreds of miles from the Yemeni and Somali coasts.

The Marshal Shaposhnikov, an anti-submarine destroyer, was part of a fleet of international warships to protect oil tankers and cargo ships in the vital shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. The anti-piracy effort has prevented a number of attacks. In February, Danish special forces foiled a hijacking of a merchant ship, and earlier this week a Greek warship fired at and arrested seven bandits in a speedboat off Yemen.

The Novorossiysk Shipping Co. credited the tanker's captain and the quick response by the Russian navy:

"Thanks to the skillful and timely action of Captain Yury Tulchinsky, the pirates were unable to take a single hostage or command the ship," said the company. "The personnel of the Marshal Shaposhnikov performed their duties in the best traditions of Russian sailors."

The response by the Marshal Shaposhnikov was reminiscent of the 2009 operation in which U.S. Navy snipers shot and killed three pirates, freeing the captain of the container ship Maersk Alabama.

Pirate attacks have jeopardized stability at the crossroads of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Sea bandits have become increasingly brazen, especially since the U.S.-backed Somalia government has been unable to control a country wracked by crime, ethnic conflicts and Islamic insurgencies.

Maritime authorities estimate that pirates have attacked hundreds of ships in recent years and have negotiated ransoms between $100 million and $200 million. Pirates are believed to be holding about 350 hostages and as many as 20 vessels.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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