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South Koreans rescue hijacked freighter

Eight Somali pirates are killed in the operation to rescue the chemical carrier Samho Jewelry, which was seized on its way from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka.

January 22, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • South Korean naval special forces are seen during their operation to rescue hijacked South Korean cargo ship Samho Jewelry in waters off northeast Somalia
South Korean naval special forces are seen during their operation to rescue… (Yonhap News )

Reporting from Seoul — South Korean special forces rescued 21 seamen held hostage aboard a freighter seized last week in the Arabian Sea, killing eight Somali pirates in the top secret mission, officials said Friday.

The captain of the South Korean chemical carrier Samho Jewelry was shot in the stomach by a pirate during the pre-dawn military raid Friday, but his injuries were not life-threatening, officials said. Five suspected pirates were captured.

"Our special forces stormed the hijacked Samho Jewelry earlier today and freed all hostages," said Col. Lee Bung-woo, a spokesman for 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 ship's crew, rescued off the coast of Africa about 750 miles northeast of Somalia, comprised eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 people from Myanmar, officials said.

The rescue was welcome news for President Lee Myung-bak, who has been under fire for perceived weakness after the North was blamed for the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 crewmen in March and the North's shelling of a Southern-controlled island in November 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 gun fire.

"This operation demonstrated our government's strong will to never negotiate with pirates," South Korean Lt. Gen. Lee Seong-ho said.

Officials said the 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 release said of the rescuers.

The 11,500-ton Samho Jewelry, which had been sailing from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka, is the second vessel from South Korea-based Samho Shipping to be hijacked in the last several months.

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

Piracy is common off the Somali coast, where rag-tag crews armed with semi-automatic weapons in high-speed boats take over lumbering tankers.

Many companies pay steep ransoms for the crews and vessels. Such rescues are rare because of the risk to hostages, who are often kept below deck in safe rooms call citadels, but are at risk until their rescuers can reach them.

The rescue came three days after a brief gun battle 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 suspected pirates leave the South Korean vessel, apparently to hijack a Mongolian boat nearby. Using a fast boat and a helicopter, the troops rescued the Mongolian ship, exchanging gunfire with the pirates. Three 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."

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

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