SEOUL, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) -- In an unprecedented rescue operation, South Korean naval special forces raided a hijacked freighter in the Arabian Sea Friday, freeing all 21 crewmen and killing eight Somali pirates, Seoul officials said.
President Lee Myung-bak praised the bold operation in a nationally televised address, saying, "Our military carried out the operation perfectly under difficult circumstances. I appreciate it and send a message of encouragement."
Code-named "Dawn of Gulf of Aden," the operation brought a dramatic conclusion to the top-secret mission that started early this week when South Korean destroyer Choi Young, with some 300 special troops, pursued the 11,500-ton Samho Jewelry.
"Our special forces stormed the hijacked Samho Jewelry earlier today and freed all hostages," said Lt. Gen. Lee Seong-ho, head of combat operations for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
"During the operation, our forces killed some Somali pirates and all of the hostages were confirmed alive," Lee told reporters, adding that the forces captured five pirates alive. There were 13 pirates aboard the Samho Jewelry.
"This operation demonstrated our government's strong will that we won't tolerate illegal activities by pirates any more," Lee said.
The South Korean captain of the ship suffered a gunshot wound to his abdomen, but his condition was not life-threatening, Lee said. The 21 crew include eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 from Myanmar.
Lt. Gen. Lee Seong-ho speaks to reporters during a press conference in Seoul on Jan. 21. (Yonhap)
The pre-dawn rescue operation by the South Korean Navy unit of Cheonghae, which has been carrying out anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden off the Somalia coast, started at 4:58 a.m. (local time) with tens of Navy SEALs aboard three fast-sailing boats closing in on the Samho Jewelry.
JCS officials said they decided to launch the operation because the pirates seemed exhausted and weakened after days of being chased by the destroyer.
The timing of the operation was also based on intelligence that a "mother ship" was leaving a Somali port, which the South Korean forces suspected was probably transporting more pirates to the hijacked ship.
"Because the rescue mission could become extremely difficult if the mother ship brings more pirates to the Samho Jewelry, we decided to carry out the operation today," Lt. Gen. Lee said.
As the operation began, the destroyer and Lynx helicopters fired warning shots after the elite forces silently approached the deck of the Samho Jewelry. Armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the pirates put up resistance and the South Korean forces immediately returned fire, JCS officials said.
The operation, which took place in high seas about 1,300 kilometers off northeast Somalia, lasted about five hours, they said.
The Samho Jewelry was en route to Sri Lanka from the United Arab Emirates carrying chemicals when it was hijacked on Saturday in the Arabian Sea.
South Korean special forces on the deck of the Samho Jewelry during a rescue operation on Jan. 21. (Yonhap)
Friday's rescue operation came after a brief gun battle on Tuesday when the South Korean destroyer Choi Young detected Somali pirates who apparently got off the vessel to hijack a Mongolian vessel nearby.
The South Korean special forces aboard a fast-sailing Navy boat and a Lynx helicopter were dispatched to rescue the Mongolian vessel, sparking the gun battle.
Tuesday's firefight left several pirates missing, and they are believed to have been killed, though their bodies have not been found, officials said. Three South Korean soldiers suffered minor injuries and were sent to a hospital in Oman.
"Three of our soldiers suffered light scratches on their bodies as they were fired upon by pirates on Tuesday," said Col. Lee Bung-woo, a JCS spokesman. "Our Lynx helicopter immediately returned fire and several pirates fell into the waters. We believe they are dead."
The standoff between the South Korean destroyer and the Somali pirates had continued since Tuesday. An Omanese navy ship arrived at the scene of confrontation to support the rescue operation.
The rescue operation came about two months after the release of a Korean supertanker, held captive by Somali pirates for seven months, in exchange for a hefty ransom reported to be more than US$9 million. The incident alarmed South Korea that the country's ships were becoming a target for the pirates.
Presiding over an emergency meeting on Sunday, President Lee ordered officials to take "all possible measures" to rescue the Samho Jewelry and its crew.
South Korea has the Cheonghae unit deployed since March 2009 to join a U.S.-led international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. The 4,500-ton destroyer Choi Young was dispatched on Sunday to the scene where the Samho Jewelry was seized.
Family members of the rescued South Korean sailors expressed relief and lauded the operation.
"I'm worried a bit about the health condition of my father, but so relieved at the news of the rescue," said Lee Min-hyuk, a 14-year-old son of Lee Ki-yong, one of the eight South Korean crewmen.
So far, seven vessels carrying South Koreans have been captured by Somali pirates. A fishing vessel, the Geummi 305, was seized on Oct. 9 last year and is still being held there. All the others except for the Samho Jewelry were released with ransom payments.