Commitment to Free Seas

The U.S. Navy’s Jan. 5 capture of 15 suspected pirates in the northern Arabian Sea demonstrates the Defense Department’s commitment to maritime freedom of navigation, DOD’s senior leaders said yesterday.

During a taped interview with Bob Schieffer for the CBS news program “Face the Nation,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey noted the pirates capture represents a routine U.S. Navy mission.

At about 12:30 p.m. local time on Jan. 5, an SH-60S Seahawk from the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd, part of the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, detected a suspected pirate skiff alongside the Iranian-flagged fishing boat, Al Molai. The master of the Al Molai sent a distress call about the same time reporting pirates were holding him captive.

A visit, board, search and seizure team from the Kidd boarded the dhow, a traditional Arabian sailing vessel, and detained 15 suspected pirates who had been holding a 13-member Iranian crew hostage for several weeks. The Al Molai had been pirated and used as a “mother ship” for pirate operations throughout the Persian Gulf, members of the Iranian vessel’s crew reported.

Dempsey told Schieffer U.S. sailors responded “as we do to calls of distress. We protect freedom of the seas, freedom of navigation.

“We … recaptured the ship, took the pirates into custody, and returned the ship to Iranian control,” he added.

The suspected pirates did not oppose boarding of the Iranian-flagged ship, and no injuries were reported in the incident, the chairman noted.

“I think in the face of the overwhelming combat power that was presented, the pirates made the right decision and surrendered,” Dempsey said.

The secretary said pirate interdiction is “what we do in that part of the world.”

The action “sends an important message to the world that the United States is going to abide by international rules and international order,” Panetta added.

The Stennis left the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in late December. Iran’s government in recent weeks has threatened to close or restrict passage through the strait, which is key to oil and other commercial shipping routes.

Defense officials have stressed that the U.S. government does not seek confrontation with Iran, but will protect safe and secure maritime passage for ships transiting the strait.

While the Iranian government “often [tries] to provoke us,” Panetta told Schieffer, “the United States, in this kind of situation, is going to respond – as we should – in a very humanitarian and responsible way.”



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