By RFE/RL, WASHINGTON
U.S. officials say a U.S. Navy ship has rescued 13 Iranians who were being held hostage by Somalian pirates in the Arabian Sea amid rising tensions between the Washington and Tehran. The Iranians were rescued on January 5 after the U.S. Navy says it received a distress call from an Iranian fishing vessel that had been boarded by pirates more than a month ago.
A photo distributed by the U.S. Navy showing a safety boat from the "USS Kidd" observing the January 5 boarding of Iran-flagged fishing dhow "Al Molai" in Arabian Sea after a reported distress call saying the fishing vessel had been captured by pirates.
A team from the "USS Kidd" guided-missile destroyer responded to the call, boarded the boat, and freed the Iranian crew.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said "the Iranians and the dhow [a traditional vessel] have been released and they're on their way back home" after the ordeal.
Iran has so far not publicly reacted to the rescue of its citizens by the U.S. Navy.
U.S. officials said 15 pirates, all believed to be Somalian nationals, were detained in the January 5 operation.
The U.S. Navy said in a statement that "the pirates did not resist the boarding and surrendered quickly" and were currently aboard a U.S. vessel "where the matter will be reviewed for prosecution."
The incident comes amid a war of words that erupted recently after Iranian officials were seen to be suggesting that they might try to shut down the Strait of Hormuz if Western-led sanctions targeted Iran's oil exports, followed by major Iranian naval exercises in the area.
A U.S. Navy image of a "USS Kidd" crew member embracing one of the fishermen whose Iranian-flagged "Al Molai" vessel and crew were saved from pirates on January 5 in the northern Arabian Sea.
Josh Schminky, a Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent who was aboard the "Kidd," said U.S. forces went out of their way to treat the fishing crew with kindness and respect.
Schminky said the Iranian hostages "had been through a lot." The Pentagon said the 13 had been kept in difficult conditions and forced to assist the pirates in their operations.
The Navy vessel involved in the rescue is a member of the same U.S. aircraft carrier group that Iran recently warned not to return to the Strait of Hormuz.
"The very same ship and set of vessels that the Iranians protested on its last voyage through [the Strait of] Hormuz -- the John C. Stennis carrier strike group -- just rescued this Iranian dhow from pirates," U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters on January 6.
Nuland said the Navy ship had taken the Iranian sailors on board, given them food, water, and medical care, and escorted them back to their boat.
"They were obviously very grateful to be rescued [from] these pirates, and then [the U.S. Navy] returned the Iranians to their fishing vessel and they went on their way," Nuland said.
Speaking on January 3, Iranian Army Chief Major General Ataollah Salehi said he "recommended" that the U.S. carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf. "We are not in the habit of warning more than once," he added.
U.S. and other Western governments have warned that transit through the strait, a main route for Mideast oil to reach world markets, takes place in international waters and Tehran has no right to block it.
Schminky said the captain of the "Al Molai" had expressed "sincere gratitude" for the U.S. assistance and said he was "afraid that without [U.S.] help, they could have been there for months."
WATCH: The U.S. Navy posted video of the counterpiracy operation, shot from a helicopter, to YouTube:
with additional wire reporting
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