SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean special forces stormed a hijacked freighter in the Arabian Sea on Friday, rescuing all 21 crew members and killing eight assailants in a rare and bold raid on Somali pirates, South Korea said.
The military operation in waters between Oman and Africa, which also captured five pirates and left one crew member wounded, came a week after the Somali attackers seized the South Korean freighter and held hostage eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 citizens from Myanmar.
"We will not tolerate any behavior that threatens the lives and safety of our people in the future," South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said in a brief televised statement, adding that the rescue was a "perfect operation."
The successful raid is a triumph for Lee, 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 Lee's military was too slow and weak in its response to the attack, which killed two marines and two civilians.
With a South Korean destroyer and a Lynx helicopter providing covering fire, South Korea's special navy forces stormed the hijacked vessel in a pre-dawn rescue operation that left eight of the pirates dead and five captured, Lt. Gen. Lee Sung-ho told reporters.
The captain of the ship was shot by a pirate and taken by a U.S. helicopter to a nearby country for treatment, but the wound is not life-threatening, Lt. Gen. Lee said. The 20 other crew members were rescued unharmed, he said.
"This operation demonstrated our government's strong will to never negotiate with pirates," the general said.
Storming a ship held by pirates is rare and navies tend to avoid it because of the risk of harming hostages, who are usually kept below decks out of sight. So rescues are not normally attempted once the pirates are onboard the ship unless the crew is locked in a safe room — often called a "citadel" — with two way communications.
Authorities did not immediately give details on the location of crew members during the rescue.
The 11,500-ton chemical carrier Samho Jewelry was sailing from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka when it was hijacked. It was the second vessel from South Korea-based Samho Shipping to be hijacked in the past several months.
In November, Somali pirates freed the supertanker Samho Dream and its 24 crew — five South Koreans and 19 Filipinos — after seven months of captivity.
Samho Shipping did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
The Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet referred all questions to South Korea, although it said the U.S. Navy was aware of the event.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991. Piracy has flourished off its coast, sometimes yielding multimillion-dollar ransoms. The ransoms the pirates get are among the few regular sources of income for small businesses that supply the pirates with food and other goods.
In April 2009, a French navy commando team stormed the yacht Tanit. The shootout killed two pirates and one French hostage and freed four French citizens.
In the same year, U.S. navy snipers also shot three pirates who were holding an American captain hostage in a lifeboat after they had abandoned a larger ship, the Maersk Alabama.