Thu, Oct 13, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Message in a bottle helps free pirated crew

AP, ROME

Members of a British Royal Navy boarding team from the RFA Fort Victoria are seen on board the pirated Italian merchant ship, the MV Montecristo, on Tuesday.

Photo: EPA

British and US forces freed an Italian cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in a dramatic rescue after retrieving a message in a bottle tossed by hostages from a porthole alerting ships nearby that the crew was safely sealed inside an armored area.

All 23 crew members of the MV Montecristo cargo ship were brought to safety on Tuesday, the Italian Foreign Ministry said. The 11 pirates were taken into custody.

The crew — seven Italians, six Ukrainians and 10 Indians — locked themselves inside an armored area of the vessel when the pirates boarded the ship on Monday, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said. Safe from the pirates’ threats, the crew continued to navigate the ship.

“The criminals managed to cut off all means of communication, but the ‘prisoners’ tossed a bottle with a message through a porthole explaining the situation,” La Russa told a news conference.

At that point, other ships in the area were aware that the Italian vessel had been boarded by pirates. The message in the bottle gave an important signal that the crew of the Italian ship was out of harm’s way and that a rescue operation could be launched without risking injury.

“Rubber boats circled the Montecristo, while a helicopter hovered above. The pirates surrendered right away, some throwing their weapons in the sea, and were arrested,” he said.

One crew member sustained a light hand injury, La Russa said.

The pirates attacked the ship on Monday 1,000km off Somalia as the crew was hauling scrap iron to Vietnam on a journey that had begun on Sept. 20 in Liverpool, England.

The father of one of the crew members, Pietro Raimondo, said Italian officials had told him that his son was in good shape.

“We are happy. We are celebrating the liberation,” said Antonio Raimondo from Sardinia, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

The operation was carried out by two navy ships — one British and one from the US — and coordinated by Italian Admiral Gualtiero Mattesi as part of NATO’s Ocean Shield anti-piracy force, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said the RFA Fort Victoria “responded to calls to assist a pirated Italian merchant ship, the MV Montecristo, along with an American Navy frigate.”

Because of the presence of warships, the pirates on board surrendered without force, it said.

Earlier on Tuesday, La Russa said security forces — groups of six armed marines — can be used as security guards on Italian ships sailing in perilous waters, noting that “the danger of piracy has increased.”

International militaries are increasingly tasking assault teams with boarding ships and battling pirates in order to win the release of hostages.

In April this year, a Danish assault team freed 18 hostages after boarding a vessel off Somalia’s coast. Three pirates were wounded.

Only 10 days later South Korean commandos stormed a container ships and freed the 21 crew members on board. In May, Indonesian forces killed four pirates after the hostage-takers were paid a ransom and freed hostages.

However, for every successful attack against hostage-taking pirates, far more pirates and seized vessels make it back to Somalia with their hostages in hand.

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