Iran Fishermen Freed From Suspected Pirates, U.S. Navy Says

The U.S. Navy said it rescued 13 Iranian fishermen held hostage by pirates in the Northern Arabian Sea days after an Iranian military leader warned against sending a U.S. aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf.

A boarding team from the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd -- part of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group -- detained 15 suspected pirates aboard a fishing dhow, the Al Molai, according to a statement yesterday from the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs Office. The dhow had been abducted and used as a “mother ship” for pirate operations throughout the Persian Gulf, according to the Navy.

The Navy responds to piracy and it didn’t matter that the fishing vessel was Iranian, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview for the “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.”

While there was no immediate response from the Iranian government, Panetta said, “It makes it very clear to them that, despite how much they often try to provoke us, the United States in this kind of situation is going to respond as we should in a very humanitarian and responsible way.”

The pirates didn’t resist the U.S. Navy and surrendered quickly in the rescue, according to the Navy statement.

At about 12:30 p.m. local time Jan. 5, an SH-60S Seahawk helicopter from the Kidd detected a suspected pirate skiff alongside the Iranian-flagged Al Molai, according to the Navy account. Simultaneously, a distress call was received from the master of the Al Molai saying he was being held captive by pirates.

Held Hostage

“The Al Molai had been taken over by pirates for roughly the last 40-45 days,” Josh Schminky, a Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent aboard the Kidd, said in the statement. The Iranians “were held hostage, with limited rations, and we believe were forced against their will to assist the pirates with other piracy operations.”

“After securing the ship and ensuring the safety of all persons on board, we began distributing food and water to both the crew and the suspected criminals as is our standard practice in counter-piracy operations,” Schminky said.

The pirates were detained on the Al Molai by the Kidd boarding party until the next morning when they were transferred to the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, where the matter will be reviewed for prosecution, according to the statement.

U.S. Commander

The pirates are suspected of being Somalis, the U.S. Strike Group commander, Rear Admiral Craig Faller, told reporters yesterday during a telephone conference call from the region.

U.S. vessels have periodically rescued Iranian fisherman in distress, he said. In this case “we saw a need -- there was some distress -- and helped. That’s what we do out here.”

The movements of the Stennis, which sailed out of the Persian Gulf though the Strait of Hormuz Dec. 27, have been the subject of tensions between the U.S. and Iran this week. The head of Iran’s army warned the U.S. on Jan. 3 against sending an aircraft carrier back into the Persian Gulf.

“We usually don’t repeat our warning, and we warn only once,” Ataollah Salehi was cited as saying by the state-run Fars news agency. “We recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf.”

The Stennis on Dec. 27 passed eastward through the Strait of Hormuz on a routine voyage and was operating in the northern Arabian Sea, according to the U.S. 5th Fleet, which has a base in Bahrain. The U.S. said it will continue operations in and around the Persian Gulf to promote freedom of navigation.

Iranian ‘Interactions’

Faller said the carrier group “had interactions” with Iranian Navy and aircraft “and those have all been professional.”

Faller said his battle group, if called on, “would do what was necessary to ensure” the Strait was not closed to shipping. Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said Dec. 27 that Iran would block the strait if sanctions are imposed to prevent Iranian oil exports.

Asked if the Stennis planned to return to the Persian Gulf, Faller said “as our mission dictates, Stennis will operate in this area. If that means moving back through the Strait, that’s what we’ll do. Our mission changes. For now, it’s business as usual as we focus on” providing aircraft for combat missions over Afghanistan, he said.

The Stennis has the full range of combat capabilities “that we exercise and train every day,” Faller said. “We are ready to use those capabilities if the need arises.”