US Navy rescues Iranians from Somali pirates – no 'thank you' expected

A US Navy search-and-seizure team rescued the crew of an Iranian fishing vessel that had been hijacked by Somali pirates in November. Maybe Iran will send a fruit basket. 

US Navy/AP
The guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd responds to a distress call on Thursday from the master of the Iranian-flagged fishing dhow Al Molai, who claimed he was being held captive.

Troops from a US Navy carrier strike group on Thursday rescued Iranians who had been held on a pirate mother ship for more than a month in “horrific” conditions, according to US military officials.

The gesture seems an unlikely one at a time when relations between the US and Iran – always strained – have been growing even tenser. As the US leads international efforts to ramp up sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, Iran has warned a US aircraft carrier not to pass through the Strait of Hormuz.

But a member of the search-and-seizure team from the USS Kidd that stormed the pirate ship said he and other members of the crew “went out of our way” to treat the Iranian fishermen “with kindness and respect.”

“They had been through a lot,” said Josh Schminky, a Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent aboard the USS Kidd, in a statement.

One US military official notes that the Iranians had been held aboard a ship infested with three-inch cockroaches for 40 to 45 days. The US is not anticipating any “thank you’s” from the Iranian government, though maybe, the US military official joked, “They won’t threaten our ships for another week or so in gratitude.”

It is conceivable that a low-level Iranian official could acknowledge the rescue and even officially express gratitude for it, says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That does not, however, augur any change in relations between two countries. “The problem is [Iran’s] drive to move forward with its nuclear program – to expand Iranian power at a time it feels US power is weakening,” Mr. Cordesman says.

“Does rescuing fishermen change anything? No,” he adds. “Even if you get a fruit basket, it’s just a fruit basket.”

The saga began when an Iranian-flagged fishing vessel and its 13-member crew was seized in November by pirates operating in the northern Arabian Sea

Two US military officials said the pirates were from Somalia, though a US Navy spokesperson says the pirates’ origin is still under investigation.

US sailors aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd saw a suspected pirate skiff Thursday alongside the Iranian shipping vessel, the Al Molai. At the same time the captain of the Al Molai was able to make a distress call claiming he was being held by pirates.

The search-and-seizure team from the USS Kidd seized the Al Molai and detained the pirates, who “surrendered quickly,” according to a US Naval Forces Central Command statement. There were no deaths or injuries reported.

The pirates had turned the Al Molai into a mother ship, which was being used to conduct piracy operations in the region. 

Three satellite ships operated by the pirates were operating nearby, according to a Navy officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some members of the Iranian crew also appear to have been force “against their will to assist the pirates with other piracy operations,” said Mr. Schminky in the statement.

The Iranian crew told the US Navy rescue team that they “were forced by the pirates to live in harsh conditions, under the threat of violence with limited supplies and medical aid,” according to the statement.

“There were three-inch cockroaches – it was just horrific,” said the US military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not cleared to speak on the matter publicly. 

The search-and-seizure team gave the Iranian mariners food, water, and medical care.  

The pirates were detained by the USS Kidd boarding party until Friday morning, when they were transferred to the USS John Stennis “where the matter will be reviewed for prosecution,” according to the statement.

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