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U.S. Navy rescues Iranians from Somalia pirates

January 6, 2012 |  2:38 pm

Iranian fishing boat
REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- A Navy destroyer rescued 13 Iranian fishermen held hostage by Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea only days after Tehran warned the U.S. to keep its ships out of the nearby Persian Gulf.

Sailors from the Kidd, a guided-missile destroyer, boarded the Iranian dhow and arrested 15 Somalis Thursday after one of the fishermen revealed over the radio that the vessel’s crew was being held captive.

Seeing a publicity windfall at a time of growing tensions with Iran, Pentagon public affairs officers quickly set up a conference call between Navy commanders in the Arabian Sea and reporters in Washington to recount the story.

Among those briefing reporters was Rear Adm. Craig S. Faller, who commands the Stennis aircraft carrier strike group, which conducted the rescue. Faller later received a congratulatory telephone call from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The Stennis is the same ship that Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the head of Iran’s army, advised Tuesday against returning to the Persian Gulf after the carrier passed through the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic choke point that Iran has threatened to close in response to economic sanctions by the U.S. and its allies.

The rescue operation began early Thursday after a helicopter from the Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, started tracking a small boat suspected of carrying pirates until it pulled alongside the Iranian fishing vessel 175 miles southeast of Muscat, the capital of Oman.

When the Kidd made radio contact with the ship, the captain identified himself as Iranian and initially denied that any pirates were on board. It became clear that he was “under duress,”  said the Kidd’s captain, Cmdr. Jennifer L. Ellinger, when the Iranian began speaking in Urdu, so the Somalis could not understand what he was saying.

After revealing that there were pirates on board, the Iranian “pleaded with us to come over and board their vessel,” Ellinger said, adding that the Kidd had a linguist on board who could understand Urdu, a South Asian language.

The U.S. sailors boarded the vessel without firing a shot and detained the Somalis. They are now being held aboard the Stennis, awaiting a decision on whether they will be prosecuted, Faller said.

After its crew received food and water, Faller said, the dhow went on its way -- its crew wearing smiles and Kidd baseball caps.

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--David S. Cloud 

PHOTO: In this Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012, photo provided by the U.S. Navy, a sailor aboard a safety boat observes a team assigned to the guided-missile destroyer Kidd board an Iranian-flagged fishing dhow in the Arabian Sea. The U.S. Navy team boarded the ship Thursday and detained 15 Somali pirates. CREDIT: AP/U.S. Navy

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