Saturday, January 7, 2012
US Navy Saves Iranians from Pirates
U.S. Navy team saves Iranians on hijacked ship
By Lolita C. Baldor
WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Navy destroyer rescued an Iranian fishing boat that had been commandeered by Somalis suspected to be pirates just days after Tehran warned the U.S. to keep its warships out of the Persian Gulf.
U.S. forces flying off the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd responded to a distress call from the Iranian vessel, the Al Molai, which had been held captive for more than 40 days, the Navy said Friday. The Kidd was sailing in the Arabian Sea, after leaving the Persian Gulf, when it came to the sailors' aid.
A Navy team boarded the ship Thursday and detained 15 Somalis. They had been holding the 13-member Iranian crew hostage and were using the boat as a mothership for pirating operations in the Persian Gulf.
Amid escalating tensions with Iran, the Obama administration reveled in delivering the news.
"This is an incredible story. This is a great story," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, explaining that the very same U.S. ships the Islamic republic protested for recently traveling through the Strait of Hormuz were responsible for the Iranian vessel's recovery.
"They were obviously very grateful to be rescued from these pirates," Nuland said.
The episode occurred after a week of hostile rhetoric from Iranian leaders, including a statement by Iran's army chief that U.S. vessels are no longer welcome in the gulf. Iran also warned it could block the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway that carries to market much of the oil pumped in the Middle East.
The Iranian threats, which were brushed aside by the Obama administration, were in response to strong economic sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear enrichment program. Last week, President Barack Obama signed into law new sanctions targeting Iran's Central Bank and its ability to sell petroleum abroad.
According to the Navy, the Kidd was part of the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, which had recently left the Persian Gulf through the strait and entered the northern Arabian Sea.
A Navy search and seizure team was taken by helicopter from the Kidd to the Al Molai and met no resistance from the suspects, who surrendered quickly.
"The Al Molai had been taken over by pirates for roughly the last 40-45 days," said Josh Schminsky, a Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent aboard the Kidd. "They were held hostage, with limited rations, and we believe were forced against their will to assist the pirates with other piracy operations."
Schminsky said the Iranian boat's captain thanked the U.S. for the assistance. "He was afraid that without our help, they could have been there for months," Schminsky said in a prepared release.
The U.S. team gave the crew food, water and medical care. Nuland said the crew then returned the Iranians to their fishing vessel "and they went on their way."
The captured Somalis are being held on the Stennis while the U.S. considers options for prosecution and consults with other nations that have joined forces against piracy.
"Sadly, this is not a new thing," Nuland told reporters, citing more than 1,000 pirates picked up at sea who are under prosecution in about 20 countries. "So this is always a question of where to send them and who will do the prosecution."
Asked whether the rescue mission could provide a chance for a thaw in relations with Iran, Nuland declined to comment. She said the Navy had made a "humanitarian gesture" to take the Iranians on board, feed them and ensure they were in good health before setting them off. She said the U.S. and Iranian governments have had no direct contact over the incident.