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US Navy Rescues Crew of North Korean Ship Off Somalia Coast

The U.S. Navy rescued the crew of a North Korean cargo ship off the coast of Somalia Tuesday, after it was attacked by unidentified men who took control of part of the vessel. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

The U.S. Navy says when it was informed of the pirate attack, it immediately dispatched a helicopter from a ship about 90 kilometers away. The Navy says the pirates had taken control of the ship's command center, but the crew remained in control of the engine room and steering controls.

As the U.S. Navy destroyer James E. Williams approached the North Korean ship in the Indian Ocean northeast of Mogadishu, it contacted the pirates and ordered them to surrender. At about the same time, the Navy says, the cargo ship's crew attacked and overpowered the pirates.

In response to a request by the crew, the U.S. Navy ship dispatched a boarding party and a medical team to care for several people injured during the incident. Three of the crew members were so seriously injured that they had to be flown to the American ship for treatment. The Navy could not provide the nationalities of the crew members or say what cargo the North Korean ship was carrying.

In all, the Navy says there were 22 crew members and seven pirates involved in the incident. It says two of the pirates were killed and five were captured and remain on the North Korean vessel.

Navy spokeswoman, Commander Lydia Robertson, says the U.S. Navy frequently helps ships in distress, regardless of where the ship or the crew comes from. "The key issue is helping a mariner in distress, whether there's a problem with a motor on a fishing vessel, whether someone is sick, we provide assistance to mariners in distress. That's the overarching mission there," she said.

Robertson says the pirates were likely from Somalia, and that Somali piracy is an ongoing problem in the region.

The head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program told VOA in Nairobi the incident resulted from a business dispute, and that the men who tried to take over the ship were security guards hired by one of the companies involved. The organization says this was the 26th reported ship hijacking off the Somali coast this year, and that several ships are still being held for ransom. He indicated it is unusual for a U.S. Navy ship to be close enough to help.

But Tuesday's incident followed another one on Sunday in which a U.S. Navy ship fired on a Japanese-owned chemical tanker that had been taken over by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. With Somali government permission, the Navy ship pursued the tanker into Somali waters, and sank the pirates' small boats, which had been tied to the tanker. But the Navy says the tanker appears to still be under the pirates' control.

The U.S. Navy spokeswoman, Commander Robertson, says fighting piracy is part of the mission of the U.S.-led coalition naval force in the area. "Their main mission is maritime security operations, and part of that is the lawful maritime order. So we counter piracy and smuggling. We protect maritime infrastructure. So we're definitely committed to deterring and stopping piracy whenever we can," she said.

She says the U.S. Navy helps train local navies to fight piracy, and takes direct action itself when appropriate.