For Iranians Waylaid by Pirates, US to the Rescue

Aboard the fishing vessel al Mulahi, in the Gulf of Oman – Senior Iranian military officials this week bluntly warned an American aircraft carrier that it would confront the “full force” of the Iranian military if it tried to re-enter the Persian Gulf.

On Friday, Fazel Ur Rehman, a 28-year-old Iranian fisherman, had a warmer greeting for the carrier task force.

“It is like you were sent by God,” said Mr. Rehman, huddled under a blanket in this vessel’s stern. “Every night we prayed for God to rescue us. And now you are here.”

In a naval action that mixed diplomacy, drama and Middle Eastern politics, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis broke up a high-seas pirate attack on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, then sailors from an American destroyer boarded the pirates’ mother ship and freed 13 Iranian hostages who had been held captive there for more than a month.

The rapidly unfolding events began Thursday morning when the pirates attacked a Bahamian-flagged ship, the motor vessel Sunshine, unaware that the Stennis was steaming less than eight miles away.

It ended Friday with the tables fully turned. The captured Somali pirates, 15 in all, were brought aboard the U.S.S. Kidd, an American destroyer traveling with the Stennis. They were then shuttled by helicopter to the aircraft carrier and locked up in its brig.

This fishing vessel and its crew, provided fuel and food by the Navy, then set sail for its home port of Chah Bahar, Iran.

The rescue, 210 miles off the coast of Iran, occurred against a tense political backdrop. On Tuesday the Iranian defense minister and a brigadier general threatened the Stennis with attack if it sought to return to the Persian Gulf, which it had left roughly a week before. The warning set up fears of a confrontation over the vital oil shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz.

None of that tension was evident at sea. The Sunshine, a 583-foot cargo ship carrying bulk cargo from Calais, France, to Bandar Abbas, Iran, continued its journey. The freed hostages, Iranian citizens, greeted the American sailors with wide-eyed relief.

Mahmed Younes, 28, the fishing vessel’s captain, said he and his crew had been captured roughly 45 days ago by pirates in a skiff, who boarded their 82-foot dhow and forced it to an anchorage in the northern Somali port of Xaafuun. There, the pirates took on provisions and more gunmen.

In late December the pirates, using their hostages to run the dhow, set back out to sea, hunting for a tanker or large cargo ship to capture and hold for ransom.

For several days, Al Mulahi roamed the Gulf of Oman, unmolested under its Iranian flag, the pirates and former hostages said. They saw several ships. But the pirates’ leader, Bashir Bhotan, 32, did not think any of them would command a high ransom. They let them pass.

“The pirates told us, ‘If you get us a good ship, we will let you go free,’ ” Captain Younes said. “We told them, ‘How can we get you a ship? We are fishermen, not hunters.’ ”

On Thursday morning, six of the pirates set out in a fiberglass skiff and found their quarry — the Sunshine, 100 miles from the shore of Oman. One of the pirates, Mohammed Mahmoud, 33, later said this was the type of vessel they would hope might fetch a ransom of several million dollars.

Brandishing a rocket-propelled grenade and several Kalashnikov rifles, they rushed alongside, threw a grappling hook and tried to lash a ladder to the Sunshine’s side. They hoped to scale the gunwales and seize the bridge.

Their plans unraveled immediately. As the Sunshine radioed for help, and tried to deter the boarding by spraying the pirates with fire hoses, the pirates were unable to board.

“Our ladder broke,” Mr. Mahmoud said.

Then an American helicopter appeared.

Neither the pirates nor the crew of the Sunshine had known it, but three Navy ships — the Stennis; the U.S.N.S. Rainier, a supply ship; and the U.S.S. Mobile Bay, a guided-missile cruiser — were steaming in formation a few miles away. The carrier was taking on provisions from the Rainier and had several helicopters in the air when the Sunshine radioed its distress call.

Aboard the carrier, Rear Adm. Craig S. Faller, who commands the carrier strike group, looked at the chart and radar images of the Sunshine’s location with something like disbelief. The Sunshine and the Stennis were only a few miles apart. “These might be the dumbest pirates ever,” he said.

He ordered a helicopter and the cruiser toward the Sunshine and other helicopters to investigate the radar images of other ships in the area, to search for the skiff’s possible mother ship.

Seeing the approaching aircraft, the pirates let the Sunshine pull away and tossed their weapons over the side, they said.

Aboard the carrier, the officers watched a video feed from the helicopter, showing the six men in T-shirts and tank tops in a small white boat, bobbing on the waves. For a few minutes the Somalis seemed unsure what to do. Then they put their hands atop their heads.

“They are surrendering, they are surrendering,” said Capt. Todd W. Malloy, the carrier strike group’s chief of staff. A boarding team from the Mobile Bay soon approached in an inflatable boat.

The pirates told them they were at sea “for fun,” the sailors said. There were no weapons on board and the Sunshine had steamed away. The Mobile Bay’s sailors began to take the pirates’ fingerprints and photographs for a biometric database.

Meanwhile, two other Navy helicopters had made four passes by Al Mulahi. The fishing vessel was about 30 miles away and carried a skiff identical to the pirate’s skiff on the dhow’s deck. But Al Mulahi was flying an Iranian flag, which made boarding the vessel politically delicate. There were no pirates visible on board.

The Navy quickly made a plan. The sailors on the boarding team gave the pirates oranges and water and set them free. But a helicopter from the Mobile Bay lingered outside of eyesight and followed the skiff’s movements with long-range optics.

The skiff headed toward the Iranian dhow.

The Kidd, a guided-missile destroyer serving as the command ship for Combined Task Force 151, an international counterpiracy team off the coast of Africa, steamed toward the dhow from 120 miles away. Several hours later, after the pirates boarded the dhow, the Kidd approached and called Al Mulahi on a bridge-to-bridge radio.

The ship asked if the dhow had any foreigners aboard. The dhow answered that it did not.

“While doing surveillance aerially, we had seen that there were Middle Easterners aboard and Somalis, and that socially they were not intermingling,” said Cmdr. Jennifer Ellinger, the top officer on the Kidd. “We could also see that some of the clothing hanging on board was Somali.”

A brief standoff ensued, as the ship and dhow bobbed alongside each other at sea. The Somalis were hiding and forcing the Iranian captain, a hostage, to speak to the American ship.

The ship had brought many of its crew who spoke different languages onto the bridge. One of the sailors, Chief Petty Officer Jagdeep Sidhu, speaks English, Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi.

Al Mulahi is from eastern Iran, near Pakistan, where many residents speak Urdu. He heard Captain Younes use an Urdu phrase, and was given the radio to hail him.

“At first he was hesitant to answer because he was afraid,” Chief Sidhu said. “But the Somalis could not understand Urdu, and he was able finally to muster enough courage and say: ‘We need help. Please help.’ ”

With the dhow’s request, the political uncertainties of boarding an Iranian-flagged vessel were lifted, because the ship’s master had asked for help. Rear Adm. Kaleem Shaukat, the Pakistani commanding Combined Task Force 151, gave permission, and late in the afternoon two inflatable boats from the Kidd ferried armed sailors to Al Mulahi.

They climbed aboard and discovered six Somalis hiding near the bow and nine more inside a cargo space. The Somalis did not resist, and were searched and moved to the bow, where they were held overnight.

A search of the dhow found four assault rifles and ammunition. Several of the Somalis, slumped with resignation, discussed their lives as pirates with a reporter and photographer traveling with the boarding team.

They said they knew the risks of being caught, but had been willing to try nonetheless. Mr. Mahmoud said he had three wives and seven children to feed. “In Somalia we have no jobs,” he said. “That’s the reason to go to sea. Our country has a civil war, and I don’t have skills.”

He said this had been his maiden voyage, a claim that could not be independently verified.

He said they had set sail with a rifle for every man and a single rocket-propelled grenade with 10 rockets, but, when the Navy approached from multiple directions, “we put them in the sea.”

As he sat smoking a cigarette a large liquid natural gas tanker steamed by on the horizon. “Ahhh,” he said. “L.N.G.”

He looked at it longingly. “Before we would have liked to catch that ship,” he said. Then he looked at the armed sailors standing about five yards away. He exhaled smoke and shook his head. “Not now,” he said.

On Friday morning, Mr. Bhotan, the leader of the pirate crew, looked dejectedly as his former charges were ferried away on inflatable boats to the Kidd, where they were showered, dressed in white suits and flex-cuffed before being flown to the carrier.

Al Mulahi, soon to be given fresh fuel from the Kidd for the journey home, was about to sail back to Iran. Mr. Bhotan said he did not know what would happen to him. “I am a prisoner,” he said.

This article, “For Iranians Waylaid by Pirates, US to the Rescue,” originally appeared in The New York Times.