KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia's navy was holding seven Somali pirates Saturday who were apprehended in the second dramatic commando raid within hours on ships seized near the African coast, authorities said.
The operations gave both Malaysia and South Korea dramatic successes in the battle against pirates who have long tormented shipping in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
The Royal Malaysian Navy said its commandos wounded three pirates in a gunbattle and rescued the 23 crew members on the Malaysian-flagged chemical tanker MT Bunga Laurel early Friday, shortly after the pirates stormed the vessel in the Gulf of Aden with assault rifles and pistols.
The operation came the same day as another stunning raid by South Korean commandos who freed a hijacked freighter, which on Saturday was sailing toward Oman under the escort of a South Korean destroyer, a company official said.
Malaysia's navy said it sent a ship and a helicopter to the Bunga Laurel, which was then 14 miles (22 kilometers) away, after crew members locked themselves in a safe room and activated a distress call Friday morning.
Elite security forces managed to board the ship and overpower the pirates after an exchange of gunfire, it said in a statement. No one in the rescue team or the ship's crew was injured.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he was informed that seven pirates were captured. Authorities were considering whether they should be brought to Malaysia to face trial, he said.
"I am proud of our (navy), which acted with full efficiency and demonstrated courage," Najib said.
The navy ship was in the Gulf of Aden to escort vessels with Malaysian interests. The attack occurred only two hours after it had left the Bunga Laurel after accompanying it to what was considered relatively safe waters, the navy said.
It did not provide the crew members' nationalities. Representatives of the Malaysian International Shipping Corp., which operates the Bunga Laurel, could not immediately be reached.
Later Friday, the raid by South Korean commandos killed eight pirates and captured five others, ending the weeklong captivity of 21 crew members, including eight South Koreans, aboard the Samho Jewelry.
The wounded captain of the South Korean freighter, Seok Hae-gyun, was being treated at a hospital in Oman for a gunshot wound in the stomach by a pirate, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said.
Lt. Gen. Lee Sung-ho of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters in Seoul that Seok's condition was not life-threatening.
The captain helped the rescue operation by steering the vessel in a zigzag pattern to stall for time after the pirates demanded that the ship be taken toward Somalia, Yonhap said.
A Samho Shipping official confirmed that the ship was heading toward Oman, but said he had no other information because of a breakdown of the ship's communication equipment.
South Korea is studying whether to bring the five captured pirates to Seoul for prosecution or hand them over to countries near Somalia, Yonhap said, citing an unidentified government official.
Repeated calls to South Korea's Foreign Ministry seeking comment went unanswered Saturday.
Other countries' special forces have also launched raids to save ships boarded by Somali pirates within hours of the attacks in recent months, after being assured the crew was locked in safe rooms, commonly referred to as "citadels."
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, during which time piracy has flourished off its coast, sometimes yielding millions of dollars in ransoms.
There are now 29 vessels and 703 hostages being held by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The country lies next to one of the world's most important shipping routes, which connects the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea beyond.