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South Korean forces storm hijacked ship, free hostages

Commandos board the Samho Jewelry and kill eight Somali pirates.

January 21, 2011|By John M. Glionna | Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seoul — South Korean special forces launched a dramatic high-seas rescue of 21 seamen hijacked by pirates last week aboard their South Korean-operated freighter in a top-secret operation that killed eight Somali abductors, officials here announced Friday.

The skipper of the South Korea chemical carrier Samho Jewelry was also shot in the stomach during the melee in the Arabian Sea but his wounds were not life-threatening, officials said. Five pirates were captured in the predawn military raid.

"Our special forces stormed the hijacked Samho Jewelry earlier today and freed all hostages," said Col. Lee Bung-woo, a spokesman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff. "During the operation, our forces killed some Somali pirates and all of the hostages were confirmed alive."

The cargo ship's crew consisted of eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 citizens from Myanmar, officials said.

The rescue off the African coast was good news for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has been under fire for his perceived weak responses to two attacks by North Korea last year -- a March torpedoing of a southern war ship that killed 46 crewmen and the north's November artillery shelling of a southern-controlled island that killed four people.

"We will not tolerate any behavior that threatens the lives and safety of our people in the future," Lee said in a brief televised statement, thanking unnamed countries for their help in the raid.

Military commandos boarded the Samho Jewelry under the cover of darkness, with teams moving systematically through the vessel, compartment by compartment, according to a news release from the South Korean Ministry of National Defense.

The captain was shot by a pirate as rescuers met with gunfire. "This operation demonstrated our government's strong will to never negotiate with pirates," said South Korean Lt. Gen. Lee Seong-ho.

Officials said the top-secret mission had been planned for a week. "Despite the difficult situation with limited information, and pirates and hostages mixed in a group, with meticulous planning and practice they minimized the damage and successfully carried out the plan," the government news release said of the rescuers.

The 11,500-ton Samho Jewelry, which was sailing from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka when it was attacked, is the second vessel from South Korea-based Samho Shipping to be hijacked in the past several months.

Somali pirates in November freed the supertanker Samho Dream and its 24 crew members following seven months of captivity.

Piracy is common off the Somali coast, where rag-tag crews armed with semi-automatic weapons in high-speed boats overcome lumbering tankers whose crews are loath to engage in gun play.

Most companies settle the abductions by paying steep ransoms. Rescues are rare because of the risk to hostages, who are often kept below deck in safe rooms called citadels, vulnerable to being injured or killed by hijackers until their rescuers can reach them.

While rare, such rescues do take place. In April 2009, U.S. Navy snipers killed three pirates who had hijacked the Maersk Alabama, setting off with the American captain after abandoning the larger ship.

The South Korean rescue Friday, which took place about 750 miles northeast of Somalia, followed a brief gun battle three days earlier between the South Korean destroyer Choi Young and a group of pirates, officials said.

The destroyer, which had been tracking the Samho Jewelry, saw several pirates leave the South Korean vessel to hijack a Mongolian boat nearby. Using a fast boat and a helicopter, the South Korean military rescued the Mongolian ship, killing several pirates. Three South Korean soldiers suffered minor injuries.

"Three of our soldiers suffered light scratches on their bodies as they were fired upon by pirates on Tuesday," Lee said. "Our Lynx helicopter immediately returned fire and several pirates fell into the waters. We believe they are dead."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Jung-yoon Choi of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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