SEOUL, South Korea – As dawn broke, South Korean commandos steered their boats to a hijacked freighter in the Arabian Sea. Under covering fire from a destroyer and a Lynx helicopter, they scrambled up ladders onto the ship, where Somali pirates were armed with assault rifles and anti-tank missiles.
The helicopter broadcast warnings in Korean that a rescue operation had begun and told the crew members to lie down on the floor.
Then the commandos started shooting as the pirates fired at them.
Five hours after Friday’s risky rescue began, it was over.
All 21 hostages were freed from the gunfire-scarred freighter. Eight pirates were killed and five were captured in what President Lee Myung-bak called a “perfect operation.”
It was a remarkable ending to the daring and rare raid, handing South Korea a stunning success in the battle against pirates who have long tormented shipping in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
The lone casualty among the crew was the captain, identified as Seok Hae-gyun, 58, who was shot in the stomach by a pirate, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported. He was taken by a U.S. helicopter to a nearby country for treatment, but the wound was not life-threatening, Lt. Gen. Lee Sung-ho of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters in Seoul.
The successful raid also was a triumph for South Korea’s president and military. Both came under harsh criticism at home for being too slow and weak in the response to a North Korean attack in November on a South Korean island near disputed waters that killed two marines and two civilians.
Friday’s operation came a week after the Somali attackers seized the Samho Jewelry, an 11,500-ton chemical carrier sailing from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka.
“We will not tolerate any behavior that threatens the lives and safety of our people in the future,” President Lee said in a brief televised statement.