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Russian forces nab Somali pirates, retake oil tanker

Only 24 hours after Somali pirates took control of a Russian oil tanker and took 23 Russian crew members captive, a Russian warship hunted it down, stormed the vessel, and freed the crew.

By Katharine HoureldAssociated Press Writer / May 6, 2010

Russian Navy ships Admiral Panteleyev (l.) and Marshal Shaposhnikov (r.) in the Vladivostok harbor on April 6, 2003. The Russian Defense Ministry says, the Russian anti-submarine destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov has freed the Moscow University, a Russian oil tanker that had been seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia on Thursday.

AP/File

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ABOARD THE SWEDISH WARSHIP CARLSKRONA

A Russian warship hunted down an oil tanker hijacked by Somali pirates and fired warning shots from its large-caliber machine gun Thursday. Special forces rappelled onto the ship, and a gun battle killed one pirate, officials said.

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The Indian Ocean rescue of 23 Russian crew members came only 24 hours after the pirates attacked the Liberian-flagged ship Moscow University. Ten pirates were arrested. Details of the death were not released.

The special forces had been aboard the Russian anti-submarine destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, which rushed to the scene after Wednesday's seajacking of the Moscow University, which is carrying crude oil worth about $50 million.

IN PICTURES: Somali pirates

Oil tankers don't even allow crew members to smoke on board because of the risk of igniting the cargo. But the Russian navy made the decision to move in with weapons ready.

"The Marshal Shaposhnikov came near the tanker and after establishing contact with the crew, who were taking cover in the machine area of the ship, opened warning fire from large-caliber machine guns and a 30-mm artillery complex," Russia's Defense Ministry said. "After several uses of fire, the pirates got into contact with the commander with the request to halt fire and the intention to surrender."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev praised the special forces for a job done "correctly, professionally, quickly." Sailor's relatives felt pride and relief the ordeal was over.

"It all ended so well that one has a warm feeling of pride for our country, no matter how pathetic it sounds," said Ludmila Kotzenko, a sailor's mother.

The ship's owner, Novoship, said the decision to free the ship was made knowing "that the crew was under safe cover inaccessible to the pirates" and that sailors' lives were not in danger.

Special forces troops rappelled down to the Moscow University from a helicopter, Rear Adm. Jan Thornqvist, force commander of the EU Naval Force, told an Associated Press reporter aboard the warship Carlskrona, which on Thursday was 500 miles (800 kilometers) west of Thursday's rescue and was sailing toward Somali waters.

Russian state news channel Rossiya-24 reported that after the special forces stormed the ship, the pirates opened fire. The Russian forces returned fire, killing one and injuring three others. After the exchange the other pirates surrendered.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Alexei Kuznetsov said that during the operation "one of the pirates was destroyed." He said a large cache of pirate weapons was seized.

Graeme Gibbon Brooks of Dryad Maritime Intelligence in Britain said the raid shows that governments are taking a more robust stand against pirate attacks, especially when that country's nationals are involved. Rescue attempts are easier when crews are locked away and not among the pirates, he said, though military action on oil tankers can be dangerous.

"As for whether live ammunition and oil tankers mix, really it's obvious there's a risk," Brooks said. "In terms of the decision to conduct the assault, these things are always a balance of risk versus benefit."

Russian officials were preparing for the pirates to be delivered to Moscow to face criminal charges.

Medvedev hinted that pirates should face tough punishment until international community comes up with a legal way of prosecuting the pirates.

"Perhaps, we should get back to the idea of establishing an international court and other legal tools, Until then, we'll have to do what our forefathers did when they met the pirates," he said.

Cmdr. John Harbour, a spokesman for the EU Naval Force, called the rescue "an excellent operation all around." He said the EU Naval Force had been working at a tactical level with the Russians, and that EU Naval Force personnel talked to the Russian crew by VHF radio. He said the EU had offered support to the Russians.

The attack occurred about 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the Somali coast as the Moscow University sailed from the Red Sea to China, the ship's owner said. Novoship is a subsidiary of Sovcomflot, which is owned by the Russian government.

The military intervention follows a trend. International military forces have been more aggressively combating piracy. EU Naval Force ships are disrupting pirate groups and destroying their ships at a much higher rate than in previous years. U.S. warships have fired back on pirates and destroyed their boats in several skirmishes in the last several weeks.

In February, Danish special forces prevented the hijacking of a ship after pirates had boarded it. Special forces from the Danish Absalon boarded the Ariella while the crew locked themselves in a secure room.

Still, pirates are holding more than 300 hostages taken from ships off East Africa in the last several months.

IN PICTURES: Somali pirates

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Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya, and David Nowak and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed to this report.

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