Somali pirates lose battle to South Korean commandos, but who's winning war?

South Korean commandos rescued a 21-man crew from Somali pirates. The renegade gangs captured more hostages in 2010 than in any other year on record, and 22 incidents have already taken place in 2011.

South Korean navy via Yonhap/AP
South Korean naval special forces approach the South Korean cargo ship Samho Jewelry in a military operation in the Arabian Sea on Friday, Jan. 21. In the daring and rare raid, South Korean special forces stormed the hijacked freighter, rescuing all 21 crew members and killing eight Somali pirates, South Korea said.

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South Korean commandos battled Somali pirates today on the Arabian Sea, storming a captured cargo ship and rescuing the 21-man crew. The mission was a boon to an embattled South Korean president and a rare setback for the pirates amid a surge in attacks.

Pirates had captured the South Korea-owned Samho Jewelry on Jan. 15 while it was traveling between Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates nearly 800 miles from the coast of Somalia. After following the ship for days, a South Korean Navy destroyer dispatched a special forces unit to rescue the crew.

Eight alleged pirates were killed in the rare rescue mission, and the Korean boat captain sustained noncritical injuries.

“Our special forces stormed the hijacked Samho Jewelry earlier today and freed all hostages,” said Colonel Lee Bung-woo, a spokesman for the South Korean joint chiefs of staff, in an article by The Guardian. “During the operation, our forces killed some Somali pirates and all of the hostages were confirmed alive.”

The successful rescue operation comes as good news particularly for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has suffered criticism for not taking a hard enough response against North Korea after it shelled Yeonpyeong Island in November. Comments today suggest that he may hope this aggressive move will improve his image.

“This operation demonstrated our government's strong will that we won't tolerate illegal activities by pirates any more,” said President Lee in an article by the Yonhap News Agency. “Our military carried out the operation perfectly under difficult circumstances. I appreciate it and send a message of encouragement.”

Somali pirate attacks skyrocket

Somali pirates have increased attacks for the past four years, capturing more hostages in 2010 than in any other year on record, according to a Jan. 17 report from the London-based International Maritime Bureau. The waters off the coast of the lawless nation remain some of the most dangerous in the world. Last year, according to the bureau, 92 percent of all ships captured by pirates were taken off the coast of Somalia.

Key to stopping the surge of piracy on the high seas is stabilizing Somalia, says Capt. Pottengal Mukundan of the bureau's Piracy Reporting Center.

“There is a desperate need for a stable infrastructure in this area,” he is quoted saying in the report. “It is vital that governments and the United Nations devote resources to developing workable administrative infrastructures to prevent criminals from exploiting the vacuum left from years of failed local government.”

But there are few indications that the situation is likely to improve in the coming year, reports Al Jazeera. In the first three weeks of 2011 there have already been 22 reported incidents off the coast of Somalia, including four hijackings. Somali pirates are said to be holding 31 vessels for ransom at the current time.

Rescue operations are unusual with many countries worrying that such missions could further endanger the crew. Most shipping companies settle hostage situations by paying the pirates a ransom, reports the Los Angeles Times. Two months ago, an oil tanker belonging to the owners of the Samho Jewelry was released by Somali pirates after seven months when the company paid a record $9.5 million ransom.

With 4 percent of the world’s daily oil supply passing through the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, according to Xinhua, the busy shipping lane remains a vital waterway. Despite a US-led naval alliance known as Combined Task Force 150 patrolling the area, pirate gangs seem to be responding with increasingly well-coordinated, complex attacks that are taking place further and further from the shore.

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