Image: South Korean navy personnel secure a boat used by Somali pirates which was captured in the Arabian Sea
Yonhap  /  Reuters
South Korean navy personnel secure a boat used by Somali pirates which was captured in the Arabian Sea in this picture released January 21, 2011.
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updated 1/21/2011 7:22:00 PM ET 2011-01-22T00:22:00

At dawn Friday, South Korean commandos steered their boat to a hijacked freighter in the Arabian Sea. Under covering fire from a destroyer and a Lynx helicopter, they scrambled up a ladder onto the ship, where Somali pirates were armed with assault rifles and anti-tank missiles.

Five hours after the risky rescue began, it was over.

All 21 hostages were freed from the gunfire-scarred freighter. Eight pirates were killed and five were captured in what President Lee Myung-bak called a "perfect operation."

It was a remarkable ending to the daring and rare raid, handing South Korea a stunning success in the battle against pirates who have long tormented shipping in the waters off the Horn of Africa.

The lone casualty among the crew was the captain, identified as Seok Bae-gyun, 58, who was shot in the stomach by a pirate, South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported. He was taken by a U.S. helicopter to a nearby country for treatment, but the wound was not life-threatening, Lt. Gen. Lee Sung-ho of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters in Seoul.

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"My heart stopped when the news of all the members being rescued was broadcast," the captain's son, Seok Hyun-wook, told the newspaper. "If I knew that they were planning a rescue, I would have been nervous all along."

The successful raid also was a triumph for South Korea's president and military. Both came under harsh criticism at home for being too slow and weak in the response to a North Korean attack in November on a South Korean island near disputed waters that killed two marines and two civilians.

Friday's operation came a week after the Somali attackers seized the Samho Jewelry, a 11,500-ton chemical carrier sailing from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka.

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"We will not tolerate any behavior that threatens the lives and safety of our people in the future," President Lee said in a brief televised statement.

The wife of one of the South Korean crew wept in gratitude as the hijacking ended. The unidentified woman told the Yonhap news agency that "family members couldn't sleep or eat well and prayed for a safe return. I am very relieved."

Choi Young-soo, the father of 25-year-old crewman Choi Jin-kyung, told the JoongAng Ilbo that his relatives "were in tears when we saw the news."

"When I heard the news of the hijack, I thought the sky was falling," the elder Choi was quoted as saying.

Of the 21 crew members, eight were from South Korea, two were from Indonesia and 11 were from Myanmar. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the Samho Jewelry was being accompanied by the destroyer to a safe area; it did not elaborate.

Other countries' special forces have launched several raids to rescue hijacked ships in recent months, but hours, not days, after capture, and then only after they were assured the crew was locked in a safe room, commonly referred to as a "citadel."

The raid on the Samho Jewelry was rare because it came a week after the ship was seized. It was not clear if the crew was in a citadel during the rescue, but the wounded captain clearly was not.

Security forces are usually reluctant to launch such raids because of the risk to the hostages.

A French rescue operation in April 2009 that came two days after a sailboat was seized left one hostage dead, along with two of the pirates. Four French citizens were freed in the effort, which came after the pirates threatened to kill their captives.

Friday's raid marked the first rescue operation since 2009 by a South Korean navy vessel deployed in the Gulf of Aden to help fight piracy.

"This operation demonstrated our government's strong will to never negotiate with pirates," Gen. Lee said.

The Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet said the U.S. Navy was aware of the rescue, but referred all other questions to South Korea.

The Samho Jewelry was the second vessel from South Korea-based Samho Shipping to be hijacked in recent months. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Countries have different criteria for deciding whether to launch raids, said Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, the head of Dryad Maritime Intelligence, which supplies piracy information to shipping companies. Some countries are more aggressive, but others consider the risk of hostages being caught in a crossfire to be greater than waiting out the hijackers.

Gibbon-Brooks said it's unlikely the pirates would try to retaliate against other crews.

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. The ransoms are among the few sources of income for small businesses that supply the pirates with food and other goods.

In November, Somali pirates freed the South Korean supertanker Samho Dream and its 24-member crew after seven months of captivity. A company official said a ransom was paid that local media reported as around $9 million.

In 2009, U.S. Navy snipers shot three pirates who were holding an American captain hostage in a lifeboat after they had abandoned a larger ship, the Maersk Alabama.

On Thursday, pirates seized the MV Hoang Son Sun, a Vietnamese-owned bulk carrier with a crew of 24, the European Union Naval Force said. The Mongolian-flagged ship, which was boarded about 520 miles (836 kilometers) southeast of the port of Muscat, Oman, was not registered with maritime authorities responsible for helping prevent pirate attacks, the EU force said.

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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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