Italy says US, UK forces free ship from pirates

October 11, 2011 - 11:10 AM

ROME (AP) — U.S. and British forces freed an Italian cargo ship on Tuesday that was attacked by pirates off Somalia and arrested the assailants, officials said.

After the pirates attacked the ship on Monday, the crew took refuge in a secure and armored area where they issued a call for help and continued to navigate the vessel, said the Italian Defense Ministry.

The British and U.S. navies each sent a ship to the area, and the "11 suspected pirates on board the pirated vessel surrendered without force" and were taken into custody, Britain's Ministry of Defense said.

All 23 crew members of the Montecristo cargo ship are now safe and free — seven Italians, six Ukrainians and 10 Indians — the Italian Foreign Ministry said.

The rescue operation was coordinated by Italian Adm. Gualtiero Mattesi as part of NATO's Ocean Shield anti-piracy force, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry. "The danger of piracy has increased" in that region, said Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russia.

The Montecristo's owner, D'Alessio Group, said Monday that the attack had occurred 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) off Somalia as the crew was hauling scrap iron to Vietnam on a journey that had begun Sept. 20 in Liverpool, England.

Pirates flourish off largely lawless Somalia by attacking passing ships, taking hostages and demanding ransoms to free them and the vessels.

International militaries are increasingly tasking assault teams with boarding ships and battling pirates in order to win the release of hostages.

In April this year, a Danish assault team freed 18 hostages after boarding a vessel off Somalia's coast. Three pirates were wounded. Only 10 days later South Korean commandos stormed a container ships and freed the 21 crew on board. In May Indonesian forces killed four Somali pirates after the hostage-takers were paid a ransom and freed hostages.

But for every successful attack against hostage-taking pirates, far more pirates make it back to Somalia with their hostages in hand. A Danish yachting family of five was taken by pirates in February from their 43-foot (13-meter) yacht. The family was released last month.

And one attempted rescue of four hijacked Americans abroad their private yacht went horribly wrong in February when the pirates killed the four as U.S. naval ships shadowed the yacht.

Pirate currently hold at least 10 ships and 251 hostages, according to Cmdr. Harrie Harrison of the anti-piracy military coalition European Union Naval Force.