By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — A Navy destroyer rescued 13 Iranian fishermen held hostage by Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea, only days after Tehran warned the U.S. to keep its ships out of the nearby Persian Gulf.
Sailors from the Kidd, a guided-missile destroyer, boarded the Iranian dhow Thursday and detained 15 Somalis after one of the fishermen was able to reveal in radio communication that his vessel’s crew was being held captive.
Seeing a publicity windfall at a time of growing tensions with Iran, Pentagon public affairs officers quickly swung into action, setting up a conference call for reporters with Navy commanders in the region.
Among those briefing journalists was Rear Adm. Craig S. Faller, who commands the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group, which conducted the rescue. Faller later received a congratulatory telephone call from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the Pentagon said in a statement.
“When we get a distress signal, we’re going to respond,” Pentagon spokesman George Little quoted Panetta as saying.
The Stennis is the same ship that Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the head of Iran’s army, advised two days earlier against returning to the Persian Gulf after the carrier passed through the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic choke point that Iran has threatened to close in response to economic sanctions by the United States and its allies.
About one-fifth of the world’s oil exports pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. and its allies are trying to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear program, suspecting that the Islamic Republic is trying to develop atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
“We recommend … to the American warship that passed through the Strait of Hormuz and went on to the Gulf of Oman, not to return to the Persian Gulf … since we are not in the habit of repeating a warning and we warn only once,” Salehi said in a statement released Tuesday by Iran’s official news agency.
Faller said the decision to go to the aid of the Iranians was standard practice for the Navy when alerted that another ship needed aid. “We saw a need and moved in to help people at sea who were in distress,” he said.
It is not unusual for Navy vessels to assist Iranian ships, Faller said, adding that his task force had helped another Iranian vessel last year.
The possibility of a clash with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz is an entirely separate matter, Faller said. “The U.S. and U.S. Navy won’t tolerate the Strait of Hormuz being closed,” he said. “If that means moving back through the strait, then that’s what we’ll do.”
The rescue operation began early Thursday after a helicopter from the Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, started tracking a small boat suspected of carrying pirates until the vessel pulled alongside the Iranian fishing dhow 175 miles southeast of Muscat, the capital of Oman.
When the Kidd made radio contact with the dhow, the captain identified himself as Iranian and initially denied that any pirates were on board.
But it became clear that he was “under duress” when the Iranian began speaking in Urdu so that the Somalis could not understand what he was saying, said the Kidd’s captain, Cmdr. Jennifer Ellinger. The Kidd had a linguist on board who could understand Urdu, a South Asian language.
After revealing that there were indeed pirates on board, the Iranian “pleaded with us to come over and board their vessel,” Ellinger said.
The U.S. sailors boarded the vessel without firing a shot and detained the Somalis, who are being held aboard the Stennis awaiting a decision on whether they would be prosecuted, Faller said.
The Iranian said the pirates had been using his vessel as a “mother ship,” a base from which to mount other raids.
After its crew received food and water, the dhow went on its way, crew members wearing smiles and Kidd baseball caps, Faller said.