US, British forces rescue Italian ship from Somali pirates

The Italian crew steered the hijacked ship toward awaiting NATO forces in the Indian Ocean. Eleven Somali pirates were captured.

By , Reuters

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    The Montecristo, an Italian cargo ship, was rescued Tuesday from Somali pirates. The ship is shown here at port.
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American and British naval forces: 1. Somali pirates: 0.
US and British forces stormed aboard a hijacked Italian cargo ship in the Indian Ocean Tuesday, freeing the 23-man crew and capturing all 11 Somali pirates, Italian officials said. The rescue comes as Italy is moving to create a new branch of special naval troops to be stationed aboard merchant ships to fight off Somali pirates.

The Italian foreign ministry issued a statement welcoming the release which it said was carried out by forces from two naval vessels, one from the United States and one from Britain. The Italian news agency Ansa said they were special forces.

The foreign ministry said the crew of the 55,675 bulk carrier Montecristo had taken refugee inside an armored shelter on the ship when it was hijacked on Monday and had continued to control its movements, bringing it closer to an area where anti-piracy forces were patrolling.

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The move into an armored shelter appeared part of new measures agreed by seafaring nations to combat Somali piracy, which costs the world economy billions of dollars each year. The ship's owners said the crew, from Italy, India and Ukraine had trained in anti-piracy drills.

Somali pirates, operating on small inflatables, normally use rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, with no heavier armaments that would penetrate armor plating.

The foreign ministry said the U.S. and Britain had operated under the orders of Italian Admiral Gualtiero Mattesi, commander of the NATO Ocean Shield anti-piracy task force.

Earlier, Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said Italy would shortly deploy a special naval force on merchant vessels to protect them from Somali gunmen in an escalation of international efforts to combat the scourge of piracy.

Many ships already carry private security contractors to counter piracy, but deployment of military forces is a significant boost in measures that had previously been hampered by disputes over the legality of using lethal force.

La Russa said the new force of naval soldiers would be divided into 10 groups of six to protect vessels using the busy but highly vulnerable waterways in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. It would be based in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

MOTHER SHIPS

Somali pirates operate hundreds of miles off the coast in vast tracts of ocean by using mother ships from which small boats are launched.

The latest Italian vessel to be hijacked, the Montecristo, was attacked 620 miles off the Horn of Africa coast on Monday morning, its owners said.

The commander of the Italian navy, Admiral Bruno Branciforte, told reporters in a joint news conference with La Russa that the new naval force would be deployed quickly, after its rules of engagement had been defined.

A decree law allowing the use of private security contractors and military forces was passed in parliament at the beginning of September. The defense ministry signed a protocol on Tuesday with Italian shipowners on deployment of the force, for which the owners will pay the costs.

"The operating area of Somali pirates is a zone through which passes a third of the West's oil and 20 percent of other cargo, it is a zone of primary economic importance," said shipowners federation president Paolo d'Amico.

Somali pirates, operating from the shores of the lawless state in the Horn of Africa, have raked in millions of dollars a year in ransoms from scores of hijacked ships from around the world, including oil super tankers.

The Italian move was welcomed by Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) which represents more than 80 per cent of the world's merchant fleet.

"We do indeed want more governments to deploy armed military guards on merchant ships whilst they are transiting the high risk piracy area," he said.

"The Italian move is an example to other governments of the need to take this issue very seriously indeed. This year alone 400 seafarers have been held hostage by Somali pirates, and 15 have lost their lives."

Some 24 Italian ships have been hijacked this year in the area compared to 31 last year but the high season for piracy is about to begin after the end of the monsoon.

Last month the shipping industry called on the United Nations to create an armed military force to be deployed on vessels to counter the escalating menace from armed seaborne gangs.

While there has been a growing acceptance of using armed security guards, sovereign military forces are preferred by the shipping industry because they have clearer rules of engagement and the reduced risk of legal issues in the event of fatalities.

Negotiations often take many months before hijacked ships and crews are released for ransom. The Socotra 1, a Yemeni-owned ship, was seized on Christmas Day 2009 and is still being held.

The Montecristo left Liverpool on September 20 heading for Vietnam, and passed through the Suez canal at the beginning of October. It was escorted by a Japanese warship -- part of an international anti-piracy force in the area -- as it crossed the Gulf of Aden.

While naval patrols, including vessels from the European Union, the United States and other nations such as South Korea, Iran and Turkey, have curbed the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden, piracy in the Indian Ocean has continued to rise due to the vast tracts of water involved, which represent a huge logistical challenge for foreign navies.

(Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli and Giselda Vagnoni in Rome, Jonathan Saul and David Cutler in London; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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