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U.S. Marines free crew after storming ship held by pirates

By Tony Perry

Los Angeles Times


SAN DIEGO — U.S. Marines stormed a ship held by pirates in the Gulf of Aden before dawn Thursday in the first action of its kind, freeing the crew and detaining a heavily armed gang of Somalis, the Navy announced.

The pirates had threatened to open fire on the Americans but, once the Marines boarded the German-owned freighter, most of them dropped their AK-47s. The others hid in spaces throughout the ship.


"They had been showing a bravado," Marine Capt. Alexander Martin said. "But when we got there, you could see the change in their eyes. They decided they'd rather live than die."

With the help of a translator, the Marines on the amphibious transport ship Dubuque — part of an international anti-piracy task force — had communicated for several hours with the pirates, who had demanded a ransom.

"They kept telling us: 'Just give us money and we'll go away,'" said Lt. Col. Joseph Clearfield. "They said if we came aboard, 'We're going to burn you.'"

Marines used cutting torches, saws, hammers and other tools to break into various ship compartments to ferret out hiding pirates. Nine Somalis in total were captured without a shot fired.

The Somalis were transferred to another task force ship for possible transfer to a country willing to hold them for trial.

The mission was authorized by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President Barack Obama. Officials said it was the first time in modern history that the U.S. military has forcibly boarded a ship held by pirates.

Navy Capt. Christopher Bolt, commander of the Dubuque, said the 15 minutes between the Marines reaching the freighter and the pirates surrendering were the most tense of his Navy career. He commended the Marines for holding their fire even though the pirates were still armed.

The freighter, the Magellan Star, had been seized Wednesday about 85 miles southeast of the Yemeni village of Mukallahi.


The Dubuque and another U.S. ship had been ordered into the area once a distress call was sent by the freighter's captain. Marines communicated with the pirates for hours as the Dubuque's commander kept in touch with admirals in Bahrain and the Pentagon.

As a U.S. helicopter hovered overhead, a boat sped Marines to the freighter, where they scrambled up rope ladders. The boarding party was covered by snipers on the Dubuque, who kept weapons trained on the freighter's deck.

U.S. Coast Guard members also boarded the ship after the pirates surrendered, the Navy said.

The Marines, from Camp Pendleton's 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, had trained for the possibility of forcibly boarding a pirated ship. But there were more pirates than the Marines had been warned by the freighter's crew.

"Every good combat plan goes to ... when you get to the point of meeting the enemy," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Hartrick, leader of one of two 12-member teams. "You just have to make those decisions. A take-down is a take-down, whether it's a house, a high-rise, or a boat."

The freighter was carrying a load of steel chain. After pirates attacked, the 11 crew members barricaded themselves in a cabin and were able to communicate with task force members planning their rescue.

The crew refused to leave the cabin until Marines bored a small hole in the door and pushed through an American flag patch cut from one of their uniforms to convince the 11 inside that they had indeed been rescued.

An estimated 20 percent of the world's trade aboard ships passes through the Gulf of Aden and the region off Somalia as part of a course between Asia and Europe through the Suez Canal. Piracy has plagued the region for several years, and task forces have been established by the U.S., NATO and the European Union.


There are signs that the task forces and new "defensive driving" practices adopted by the shipping industry are discouraging piracy. In the first half of this year, there were 98 piracy incidents, compared to 144 during the same period in 2009.

The most high-profile incident was the seizure of a U.S. commercial ship in April 2009. After a five-day standoff, Navy SEAL snipers killed three pirates holding the captain, an American, at gunpoint. The captain was rescued uninjured.

In comments Thursday after the German ship was freed, the Turkish admiral who heads the anti-piracy task force expressed resolve in combating piracy.

"We are completely committed to bringing the disruptive acts of piracy to an end," Turkish Rear Adm. Sinan Ertugrul said.


(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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