S.Korea navy kills Somali pirates, saves crew
South Korean navy commandos Friday stormed a ship hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, rescuing all the 21 crew and killing eight pirates, military officials said.
The SEAL special forces boarded the South Korean ship before dawn, freeing all the hostages and killing the pirates in cabin-to-cabin battles, they said. Five others were captured.
"This operation demonstrated our government's strong will that we won't tolerate illegal activities by pirates any more," Lieutenant-General Lee Sung-Ho of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a news briefing.
The South Korean skipper of the chemical freighter suffered a gunshot wound to his stomach during the raid but his condition is not life-threatening, the military said. No commandos were hurt.
The rescue about 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) off northeast Somalia was seen as a major morale boost for the South's military.
It was strongly criticised for a perceived weak response to North Korea's shelling of a border island last November.
President Lee Myung-Bak, who authorised the operation, said the military carried out the raid perfectly under difficult circumstances.
"We will not tolerate any activities that threaten the safety and lives of our people," he said.
The pirates seized the 11,500-ton ship and 21 crew members -- eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 from Myanmar -- on January 15 in the Arabian Sea when it was en route to Sri Lanka from the United Arab Emirates.
Seoul ordered a destroyer on patrol in the Gulf of Aden to give chase and President Lee ordered "all possible measures" to save the crew.
Lieutenant-General Lee said the commandos moved in after receiving information that the "mother ship" for the pirates was leaving a Somali port.
"Since we thought we could be in an extremely difficult situation if the pirates joined forces, we chose today to carry out the operation."
To distract the pirates' attention, the destroyer fired warning shots and manoeuvred close to the hijacked vessel. A Lynx helicopter provided covering fire as the commandos stormed the ship.
The Koreans were assisted by a US carrier which also provided a helicopter to transfer the wounded Korean skipper.
"It was breathtaking news," said Suk Hyun-Wook, son of the 58-year-old skipper, describing his response to reports of the raid.
Kim Doo-Chan, 61, was also among the rescued crew. "I feel so relieved," his 28-year-old son Dong-Min told Yonhap news agency. "I'm ecstatic."
The military said Friday's rescue followed a brief gunbattle Tuesday, when the destroyer encountered pirates who had apparently left the South Korean freighter to try to seize a nearby Mongolian vessel.
The South Korean commandos aboard a speedboat and a Lynx helicopter were dispatched to rescue the Mongolian ship.
Tuesday's firefight left several pirates missing and believed killed although their bodies have not been found, a JCS spokesmen said. Three commandos were slightly hurt.
The hijacking came two months after a supertanker belonging to the same company, Samho Shipping, was released by Somali pirates after being held for seven months.
The 300,000-tonne Samho Dream and its 24 crew were freed only after the pirates were paid a ransom reported as a record ê9 million.
Piracy has surged off lawless Somalia in recent years, and international warships patrol the area to try to clamp down on the problem. Pirates are currently holding 29 vessels and about 700 hostages.
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