- Associated Press - Friday, January 21, 2011

SEOUL (AP) — At dawn, South Korean special forces packed into a small boat approached a hijacked freighter in the Arabian Sea. Commandos scrambled up a ladder onto the ship, aboard which Somali pirates were armed with AK assault rifles and anti-tank missiles. A South Korean destroyer and hovering Lynx helicopter provided covering fire.

When Friday’s operation ended five hours later, 21 hostages had been rescued, eight Somali pirates killed and five assailants captured. Pockmarks from artillery fire blanketed the ship’s bridge. One of the hostages was wounded, but all were alive — a remarkable ending for a risky rescue.

A wife of one of the South Korean crew cried in gratitude as the weeklong hijacking came to an end.

“Family members couldn’t sleep or eat well and prayed for a safe return. I am very relieved,” she said, according to Yonhap news agency.

The daring and rare raid — what the South’s president called a “perfect operation” — handed South Korea a stunning success in the battle against pirates who have long tormented shipping in the waters between Africa and the Arabian peninsula.

It was also a triumph for President Lee Myung-bak, whose government suffered harsh criticism at home in the weeks following a North Korean attack in November on a South Korean island near disputed waters. Critics said Mr. Lee’s military was too slow and weak in its response to the attack, which killed two marines and two civilians.

Friday’s operation in waters between Oman and Africa came a week after the Somali attackers seized the 11,500-ton chemical carrier as it was sailing from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka.

During the raid, the South Korean captain of the Samho Jewelry was shot by a pirate. He was taken by a U.S. helicopter to a nearby country for treatment, but the wound is not life-threatening, Lt. Gen. Lee Sung-ho told reporters. The 20 other crew members — seven South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 citizens from Myanmar — were rescued unharmed and were in good condition, he said.

“We will not tolerate any behavior that threatens the lives and safety of our people in the future,” Mr. Lee said in a brief televised statement.

Other countries’ special forces have launched several raids to rescue pirated ships in the past few months, but as soon as they were assured — and never before they confirmed — the crew was locked in a safe room, commonly referred to as a “citadel.”

The raid on the South Korean Samho Jewelry was rare because it happened a week after the ship was seized; it was not clear if the crew was in a citadel on Friday, but at least the wounded captain was not. Militaries are usually reluctant to launch such raids because of the risk of harm to hostages. A French rescue in 2009 that came two days after a sailboat was taken left one hostage dead.

Friday’s raid marked the first rescue operation by a South Korean navy vessel that has been deployed in the Gulf of Aden to help fight piracy since 2009.

“This operation demonstrated our government’s strong will to never negotiate with pirates,” Gen. Lee said.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the destroyer was accompanying the vessel to a safe area; it didn’t elaborate.

Countries have different criteria for deciding whether to launch raids, said Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, the head of Dryad Maritime Intelligence, which provides information about piracy to shipping companies. Some countries are aggressive, but others consider that the risk of hostages being caught in a crossfire was greater than the risk of waiting out the hijackers.

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