US, British commandos free hijacked Italian ship off Somalia

Handout photo issued by the Ministry of Defence of forces from the RFA Fort Victoria, currently on Nato counter piracy operations east of Suez, responding to calls to assist a pirated Italian merchant ship, the MV Montecristo along with an American Navy frigate. Photo: Ministry of Defence/PA Wire

British and US commandos raided a hijacked Italian vessel off the coast of Somalia yesterday, capturing the pirates and freeing the carrier’s crew of 23, the Italian government said.

“The vessel has been freed… thanks to the joint intervention of two ships from the United States and British navies” operating as part of NATO’s anti-piracy operations, Ocean Shield, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The pirates, said to be 11, “gave themselves up and are being held in detention,” the statement added.

Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa told journalists at a press conference that the US and British commandos had used helicopters to judge the danger a raid would pose to the crew, but had met no resistance from the pirates.

“A British helicopter flew over the bridge and the pirates gave themselves up immediately,” he said.

“Some had already thrown their weapons into the sea,” he added.

In London, the Ministry of Defence said the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessel Fort Victoria boarded the MV Montecristo without opposition after responding to a call for help from the Italian ship and a US Navy frigate.

“Due to the presence of the warships, 11 suspected pirates on board the pirated vessel surrendered without force,” an MoD spokesman said.

“We are relieved, but have not yet been able to contact the crew,” said a spokesman for the Tuscany-based D’Alesio shipping company. “In the meantime we’re contacting the families,” he added.

The Montecristo was travelling from Liverpool to Vietnam with a cargo of scrap iron when it was captured about 620 miles east of the Somali coast on Monday, with a crew of seven Italians, 10 Ukrainians and six Indian nationals.

Four of the Italians were security guards but they were unarmed and served as look-outs for potential attacks, Italian media said.

Earlier yesterday, Italy’s shipowners association Confitarma announced it was signing a protocol with the defence ministry to allow military forces to travel aboard ships in dangerous areas to ward off pirate attacks.

Ten teams of six Italian marines will be on standby to be stationed on vessels sailing in risk areas.

Pirates have hijacked several Italian vessels this year. On April 21, Somali pirates captured an Italian cargo ship headed for Iran with 21 crew on board, including six Italians, in the Arabian Sea near Oman.

And in February, pirates wielding rocket-launchers seized a large Italian oil tanker with a crew of five Italians and 17 Indians east off the Yemeni island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean.

After that attack, Italy’s Confitarma called for ships to have armed guards aboard.

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