Russian marines free tanker, capture pirates

Russian marines stormed a hijacked Russian oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden in a daring early morning raid, killing one of the Somali pirates aboard and capturing another 10.

The oil tanker’s crew of 23 escaped unharmed after the marines from the Marshal Shaposhnikov sped in small boats to the Moscow University oil tanker and scaled its sides before exchanging fire with the pirates.

“The tanker was freed last night as a result of a successful armed operation by marines from the Marshal Shaposhnikov,” a spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry told AFP.

The operation, which lasted over three hours, was hailed by Russian officials as a decisive show of Russia’s naval capabilities.

“It was sharp, professional and quick,” said President Dmitry Medvedev, ordering Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to give medals to all those involved in the rescue.

Russian investigators said the 10 captured pirates would be brought to Moscow to face charges, adding that some had been wounded in the firefight and one killed. Russian television said more pirates had managed to escape.

“The investigation is taking steps to transport the captured pirates to Moscow,” the Investigative Committee of Russia’s Prosecutor General Office said in a statement.

It said the investigation will be conducted in accordance with Russian and international law and they will face “criminal responsibility” for the hijacking.

Somali pirates seized control of the 230-metre (755 foot)-long Moscow University early Wednesday as it sailed out of the Gulf of Aden, setting up a high-seas standoff as the Marshal Shaposhnikov steamed to the rescue.

The tanker had been on its way to China from the Red Sea with 86,000 tonnes of crude oil, believed to be worth around 50 million dollars.

Before storming the tanker, the warship’s crew had used a helicopter to conduct reconnaissance, RIA-Novosti news agency quoted a high level naval source in the region as saying.

“Simultaneously boats with an anti-terror group approached the tanker from the sea and boarded the vessel,” the source said. “After a short fire-fight the pirates were neutralised.”

The crew had been locked into a cabin as the pirates took control of the vessel.

The end to the 20-hour hijacking is a major triumph for the Russian navy and comes as the entire Russian military gears up for a massive parade on Sunday to mark the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Navfor, the European Union’s anti-piracy force, called the liberation of the tanker a “dramatic rescue,” while the ship’s operator said it had been carried out “in the best traditions of the Russian naval mariners.”

Dmitry Rogozin, the Kremlin’s envoy to NATO, said the operation had earned high marks in Brussels and would become a “textbook example” of successful high-seas rescue operations.

“We have showed our colleagues in NATO and the EU that Russia is still a self-sufficient state which can ensure security of its citizens, including with the use of its armed forces, far outside their native country,” Rogozin told Echo of Moscow radio.

Observers also said the crew managed to escape unharmed thanks to the captain’s professionalism.

“Honour and praise to the captain who had managed to organize the timely evacuation of people and shelter them in the engine room,” Mikhail Voitenko, a leading Russian expert on piracy, said on Echo of Moscow.

The seizure of the Moscow University was a jolt to the international anti-piracy system put in place along one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

Heavily armed and equipped with GPS navigation and satellite phones, pirates raked in an estimated 60 million dollars in ransoms last year.

by Anna Smolchenko (c) 2010 AFP

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