- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2007

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — U.S. sailors boarded a North Korean-flagged vessel to help crew members wounded in a battle with pirates off the coast of Somalia, the Navy said today. American ships were also tracking a hijacked Japanese tanker in Somali waters after sinking two pirate skiffs tied to it.

With permission from the North Koreans, the Navy boarded the ship with a small team of medics, security personnel and an interpreter, the military said. The Koreans already had regained control of the vessel and detained all pirates.

The Navy medics treated three pirates and three Korean sailors for gunshot wounds. Another pirate was dead. The Korean sailors were taken aboard the American destroyer and treated there for two hours before returning to their ship. The pirates remain detained on the Korean vessel.

A helicopter had flown from the destroyer USS James E. Williams yesterday to investigate a phoned-in tip of a hijacked ship and demanded by radio that the pirates give up their weapons, the military said in a statement. The crew of the Dai Hong Dan then overwhelmed the hijackers.

The ship had departed from Mogadishu, where it made a delivery of sugar, said Cyrus Mody, a senior analyst at the International Maritime Bureau in London.

The incident came as the U.S. and North Korea worked toward the disabling of the communist country’s main nuclear complex by the end of the year, which would be the biggest step Pyongyang has taken yet toward dismantling its atomic weapons program.

A Navy spokeswoman, Lt. Jessica Gandy, said the American destroyer had not been shadowing the North Korean ship. She said it was not known what its cargo was.

Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said it was logical that the military would want to know “what is being transported on the high seas and who is out there operating and if they have nothing but the best intentions in mind.”

On Sunday, coalition ships fired on and sank two pirate skiffs tied to the Japanese chemical tanker, the Golden Nori, said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, the 5th Fleet spokesman. A Navy photo showed one of the skiffs burning after being hit by a gun aboard the USS Porter, a guided-missile destroyer. The Navy said U.S. ships were monitoring the tanker.

A Durval Shipping official in Tokyo said the tanker’s 28 crew — two South Koreans, nine Filipinos including the ship’s captain and 12 Myanmar citizens — had not been injured.

The captain called his family and told them that “the crew is safe, that they are being treated well, that they are in good physical condition,” said Philippines Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos.

The tanker was carrying four kinds of chemicals, including, highly flammable benzene, said the Durval official, who gave only his last name, Oka. He refused to say how much benzene the ship was carrying.

“We were aware of what was on the ship when we fired,” Robertson said.

Conejos said the hijackers made no immediate demands. The Philippine government is closely coordinating efforts to win the release of the crew with the ship’s owner, the Japanese government, international shipping authorities, he said.

“Because of a lack of central control, we have no (Somali) government to talk to ask for information. We have to get it ourselves,” Conejos said.

The ship had loaded at several ports in Asia and was bound for Europe, with no plans to stop in Africa, said Mody, the International Maritime Bureau official.

“We were later informed by the coalition forces that the vessel was taken into Somali territorial waters,” he said.

The IMB reported this month that pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increases in the poorly policed waters of Somalia and Nigeria. Reported attacks in Somali waters rose to 26, up from eight a year earlier, the bureau.

This is the third time Somali gunmen have been overpowered by mariners.

In 1989, crew members of the MV Alpha Mitchel managed to overpower their captors in Somalia waters. In 2004, six crew members of the MT Jenlil also managed to escape to Yemen after overpowering their captors in Somalia territorial waters.

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