US Marines capture ship hijacked by pirates off Somalia

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Media caption24 US marine boarded the vessel and took control from the nine pirates

US Marines have boarded and seized a vessel hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia, navy officials say.

A group of 24 marines swooped on the German-owned M/V Magellan Star and took control of the ship from nine pirates who had captured it on Wednesday.

There were no casualties during the pre-dawn raid, the US Fifth Fleet said.

The vessel has been returned to its 11-man crew, who are unhurt after they managed to seal themselves in a safe compartment when the pirates struck.

International rescue

The marines launched their assault from aboard the USS Dubuque, after the Turkish frigate TCG Gokceada responded to a distress call from the Magellan Star.

The two military vessels are part of a multinational force set up in January 2009 to protect merchant ships from pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia and into the Gulf of Aden.

It is the first time the US Marines have seized a pirated vessel off Somalia, according to Lt John Fage, of the US Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.

He said the operation took about an hour and there were no injuries among the marines. "There were no shots fired," he said.

Nine suspected pirates were taken into custody, Lt Fage added. Their fate has "yet to be determined" he said.

In the past, captured pirates have often been released by Nato forces because holding and prosecuting them is not straightforward under international law.

Image caption The Bulgarian chemical tanker Panega was released by Somali pirates on Thursday

The hijack began on Wednesday when pirates boarded the 8,000-tonne container ship, which flies the flag of Antigua.

But after searching the vessel for three hours, they were unable to locate the crew, according to the ship's German owners, Quadrant.

The pirates then phoned the shipping company in Hamburg to ask where the crew were hidden.

"They were told the crew was on holiday," said spokesman Juergen Salamon.

"They then asked how to switch the engines back on, but were told they were broken."

The 11-man crew, comprising two Russians, two Poles, and seven Filipinos, spent the time hidden away in a small, cramped safe room whose entrance was not immediately obvious, Mr Salamon said.

Second ship released

In a separate incident on Thursday, a group of Somali pirates released a Bulgarian-flagged ship they seized in May, the Bulgarian foreign ministry said.

The chemical tanker Panega, with 15 Bulgarian crew, was seized about 160km (100 miles) east of the Yemeni port of Aden in May.

"The ship has been released this morning. We know that the 15 sailors are in good health," said a foreign ministry spokeswoman.

She did not comment on whether a ransom was paid.

At least 23 foreign vessels with more than 411 crew members are currently held by pirates, according to Ecoterra International, an organisation monitoring piracy.

Last year there were more than 200 attacks by Somali pirates - including 68 successful hijackings - and ransoms believed to exceed $50m in total were paid, the organisation said.

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