Russian commandos dramatically rescued the crew of an oil tanker today that had been seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Special forces marines stormed the Liberian-registered Moscow University and freed all 23 Russian crew members unharmed. One pirate was reported killed and ten others were arrested after a firefight during the dawn helicopter raid on the vessel, which is carrying 86,000 tonnes of oil worth $52 million (£34 million).
“During reconnaissance preceding the assault operation, the Russian sailors simultaneously used helicopters and speedboats while special forces covertly approached the tanker,” an unidentified Russian navy official told the Ria-Novosti news agency.
“The pirates on board the Moscow University tanker opened fire using small arms. One of them was shot during return fire.”
Colonel Alexei Kuznetsov, a spokesman for the Russian Defence Ministry, said: “Nobody was hurt among the tanker crew and the Russian military. The pirates have been detained and are being held on board the Moscow University tanker.”
A Kremlin spokesman praised the “excellent job” carried out by rescuers from the anti-submarine destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov and the response of crew members to the hijack.
“The oil tanker's crew was brilliantly prepared. The outcome was due to the training, organised by the ship's owner, and the preparatory work done by the personnel. The crew were prepared to act in an emergency,” said Anatoly Safonov, the Kremlin’s envoy for international co-operation in combating terrorism.
The crew locked themselves in a safe room, which had reinforced doors that could be opened only from inside, when the Somali pirates boarded the tanker.
The ship had been disabled and was not moving, although crew members told officials that pirates were attempting to get into the engine room.
The Kremlin despatched the warship to the Gulf of Aden as soon as the crisis broke yesterday about 350 miles (560km) off the coast of Somalia. The vessel, which is owned by Novoship, a subsidiary of a Russian state company, was bound for China from Sudan.
The pirates had threatened to take the tanker to a pirate haven on the coast of Somalia. Novoship said in a statement that the operation to free the Moscow University had been sanctioned in the knowledge that “the crew was under safe cover inaccessible to the pirates and that the lives and health of the sailors were not threatened”.
This was the first time that a wholly Russian crew had been taken hostage by Somali pirates. The speed of the Kremlin’s response came as an international naval coalition steps up the fight to protect vessels threatened by piracy in Gulf waters.
A European Union force has increased its attacks on pirate ships and United States warships have also destroyed boats in several clashes during recent weeks.
However, pirates still hold more than 300 hostages seized aboard ships attacked off the East African coast in recent months and are demanding millions of dollars in ransoms to release crews and cargos.
A statement from the EU’s naval force said that the Marshal Shaposhnikov had sent a helicopter to the oil tanker, which had returned fire after being shot at by pirates.
It added: “Eventually, the pirates surrendered and a boarding team from the Marshal Shaposhnikov captured all the pirates and freed the crew.”
Click to view image: 'Russian ship'
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