BRITISH troops saved 23 sailors from pirates after the crew sealed themselves in an armoured room and threw a message in a bottle out to their rescuers.
The 56,000-tonne Italian bulk carrier Montecristo was shipping iron from Liverpool to Vietnam when it was attacked shortly after leaving the Gulf of Aden and heading out into the Indian Ocean.
The ship was built with an armoured safety room from which the crew of seven Italians, six Ukrainians and ten Indians, were still able to steer.
The pirates cut off all means of communication, but once the Montecristo sailed towards the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Fort Victoria and a US frigate, which had been radioed to help, the crew threw a message in a bottle out of a porthole to let their rescuers know they were safe and out of harm’s way.
The 11 pirates surrendered at the show of force from the Americans and British, and a combination of Royal Navy officers and Royal Marines boarded unopposed yesterday morning.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “We can confirm that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Fort Victoria, currently on Nato counter-piracy operations east of Suez, responded to calls to assist a pirated Italian merchant ship, the MV Montecristo, along with an American navy frigate.
“Due to the presence of the warships, 11 suspected pirates on board the pirated vessel surrendered without force.”
Italian defence minister Ignazio La Russa said: “The crew barricaded themselves inside the armoured strongroom of the ship and also set up barbed wire which made it harder for the pirates to reach them.
“As they were in a secure area they were able to keep control of the vessel without being directly threatened by the pirates who were unable to threaten them. The criminals managed to cut off all means of communication, but the ‘prisoners’ tossed a bottle with a message through a porthole explaining the situation.”
Mr Russa also said he spoke to Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who approved the operation.
The threat of pirates in the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is a huge problem. An estimated 70 pirate ships patrol those waters, with ten ships and about 300 people currently believed to be held captive.
Commander Harrie Harrison, spokesman for the European Naval Force, said the average ransom paid is £3 million for each ship, which is split between the pirates.
“It’s the equivalent of a 30 to 50-year salary for any one of those guys, so they are desperate to get on board,” he added.
“It’s a huge problem. Often these ships are carrying food aid to try and keep the population of Somalia alive.”
Part of the European Naval Force’s role is to protect aid and vulnerable ships. But other merchant ships are also taking defensive measures, including armed guards, razor wire around the upper deck, and firing water hoses at the pirate ship as they approach.
However, this time of year, after the monsoon season, is when the pirates become increasingly desperate and dangerous. As it was an Italian vessel, it will be up to the Italian authorities to decide whether to prosecute the detained pirates.
Campaigners have urged Italy to send a strong message to
Giles Heimann, spokesman for Save Our Seafarers, said: “The rescue off the coast of Somalia begs the question – will the pirates be held, tried and prosecuted? We’re delighted the British and American governments stepped in. Now the monsoon season has finished we expect these attacks to reach their highest levels yet.
“Piracy costs the global economy £4.5 billion to £7.7bn a year. Yet even when caught red-handed by naval forces, 80 per cent of pirates are released to attack again. There are more than 100,000 seafarers at any one time either travelling or preparing to go through the Gulf of Aden.”
In April this year, a Danish assault team freed 18 hostages after boarding a vessel off Somalia’s coast. Three pirates were wounded. Only ten days later South Korean commandos stormed a container ship and freed the 21 crew on board.