Pirate 'Mother Ship' Found Off Somalia

When pirates attacked the Italian cargo vessel Montecristo in the Indian Ocean last week, crewmembers used a time-honored method to save themselves -- a message in a bottle, tossed from a porthole.

The British Navy got the message, sent commandos to storm the vessel, and rescued the 23 crew members, who had locked themselves in an armored area of the ship. Eleven suspected pirates surrendered to the Royal Marine commandos.

Now the British Navy has seized the pirate "mothership" that sent the pirates to attack the Montecristo. Royal Marines arrested four more suspected pirates and freed 20 members of a hostage crew who were manning a hijacked dhow for the pirates.

British vessels in NATO's counter-piracy force intercepted the "mothership" 200 miles off the coast of Somalia, origin of most of the pirates raiding international shipping near the African coast. Commandos scaled the side of the vessel in the dark and rounded up all 24 people aboard. The pirates had allegedly hijacked the dhow and forced its 20-member Pakistani crew to man the vessel while the pirates used it as a base to raid cargo ships.

According to the British, as the commandos closed in the suspected pirates were seen dumping weapons overboard and setting a skiff adrift. The men on the dhow were not able to dispose of all their weapons, however; a "large" cache that remained on board included a rocket-propelled grenade.

In searching the vessel, the commandos also found equipment looted from the Montecristo. The four alleged pirates were turned over to Italian authorities on suspicion of attempting to hijack the Montecristo.

The pirates intercepted the Montecristo, a 56,000-ton vessel hauling scrap iron from England to Vietnam, on Oct. 11 more than 600 miles off the coast of Somalia. After the pirates boarded the vessel, the crew sent out a radio distress call that was heard by British and U.S. vessels in the area. The pirates then shut down radio communications.

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As the NATO ships headed toward the Montecristo, the crewmembers wrote a message stating that they were safe in an armored area of the ship, placed the message in a bottle with a flashing beacon, and tossed it out a porthole. When the British reached the Montecristo, they surrounded the vessel with commandos in rubber dinghies, and sent a helicopter to hover overhead. The suspected pirates surrendered immediately, according to the British Navy, and all 23 members of the cargo vessel's crew, including 10 Indians, six Ukrainians and seven Italians, were recovered unharmed.

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