U.S. Marines today stormed a German-owned commercial vessel that had been captured by Somali pirates, in what appears to be the first U.S.-led military boarding off the coast of East Africa.
The MV Magellan Star was located in the Gulf of Aden, about 85 miles south of the Yemeni town of al Mukalla, when 24 Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Maritime Raiding Force boarded and seized control of the ship early this morning.
There were no casualties among the raiding party or the ship's crew, the U.S. Navy said in a statement. Nine alleged pirates were captured in the operation and are under coalition control.
Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, said two teams of 12 marines stationed aboard the USS Dubuque boarded the Magellan Star at 5 a.m. Bahrain time.
The raid "went down in minutes ... and no shots were fired," she said.
The pirates were overwhelmed and "the smartest move is not to react in a hostile way and they surrendered."
The 11 crew members aboard the Magellan Star had remained in the ship's safe room since the pirates seized the ship Wednesday. The marines rescued them shortly after they overtook the pirates, who were armed with AK-47 rifles.
Assigned to the international anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, the Navy's USS Dubuque and USS Princeton had responded to the pirate seizure shortly after it occurred. The Dubuque and the Marines aboard were travelling through the Gulf of Aden en route to Jordan for a previously scheduled training exercise with the Jordanian military.
This is not the first time the U.S. military has used force to intercede in an act of piracy. In April of 2009, Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three suspected pirates holding the captain of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama hostage on a lifeboat.
The difference in that operation was that the military acted after both the crew and the pirates had vacated the ship. Navy ships have also intervened during attacks while they were underway, but this is the first time a U.S. military team has boarded a ship fully under pirate control.
U.S. Tactics Remain the Same
Today's boarding is not a change in tactics but a case of having the right people in the right place, Derrick-Frost said. "It was a matter of having all the right people, with the right kind of training to do these kinds of boardings to regain control of the ship," she said.
"It was the perfect combination."
Derrick-Frost said the international anti-piracy mission off Somalia has different security teams throughout the area that can conduct different kinds of boardings and seizures. The Dubuque had a maritime raid team aboard, assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and trained to do such missions.
The pirate seizure occurred in the area where the Dubuque, Princeton and the Turkish command ship happened to be.
Brig. Gen. David Berger, director of Marine Operations at the Marine Headquarters, said the Marines aboard the Dubuque were trained for various scenarios of Visit, Board, Search and Seizure, which is one of the missions for which marines in Marine Expeditionary Units train.
He said the Marines were aboard the Magellan Star for three hours.
The marines were from the same unit that responded to the Pakistan relief efforts and the ship was also part of the original three ships, headed by the USS Peleliu, that were off the coast of Pakistan. The United States is part of a joint piracy task force that includes NATO and navies from the European Union.
The Magellan Star, attacked and captured Sept. 8, was initially helped by a Turkish Navy vessel, which was the first to respond the ship's distress calls. The U.S. warships carrying the Marines then arrived and subsequently boarded the Magellan Star.
In a statement, Turkish Navy Rear Adm. Sinan Ertugrul praised the work of the multinational force saying, "units from the multinational maritime force, under Combined Task Force 151, are actively engaged in anti-piracy operations. This regional problem, truly, has global impact and we are completely committed to bringing the disruptive acts of piracy to an end."
An Acceptable Level of Risk
Roger Middleton, a Somalia analyst from the British think tank Chatham House, said that while it's uncommon for navies to board ships after they've been taken under pirate control, it has happened before in the right circumstances.
Middleton said the decision to board a ship controlled by armed pirates usually comes down to a risk analysis of the safety of the crew. "Any kind of rescue attempt could put their lives at risk," he said.
In April, a Dutch special forces team also boarded a German-owned vessel captured by pirates, but only after it established that crew members had barricaded themselves safely in a room.
The Dutch forces were then able to take on the suspected pirates without risking death or injury to any crew members. "The risk analysis was in their favor," Middleton said.