DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — U.S. Marine commandos stormed a pirate-held cargo ship off the coast of Somalia on Thursday, reclaiming control and taking nine prisoners without firing a shot in the first such boarding raid by the international antipiracy flotilla, U.S. Navy officials said.
The mission — using small craft to reach the deck of the German-owned vessel as the 11-man crew huddled in a safe room below — ranks among the most dramatic high seas confrontations with pirates by the task force created to protect shipping lanes off lawless Somalia.
The crew managed to kill the engines before barricading themselves in the safe engineering room, communicating with the ship's operator by satellite phone and leaving the craft dead in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen.
"The pirates had entered a ship that they couldn't steer and there was no crew," said Juergen Salamon, the ship's operator based in Dortmund, Germany.
The pirates then hit an emergency button that connected them directly with the ship operators.
"They asked us where the crew is," Salamon chuckled. "We told them, 'They're on leave.' "
There was no demand for ransom, he said.
The tactic so frustrated the pirates they started heavily damaging equipment, Navy officials and the ship's operator said.
Lt. John Fage, a spokesman at the U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, described the predawn raid as an "air and sea" assault that included Cobra attack helicopters for surveillance and coordination.
The New York Times, citing unnamed American officials, reported that about 5 a.m. Thursday, two teams of 12 Marines each motored up in inflatable boats to the hijacked ship, the 436-foot-long Magellan Star.
The Marines clambered up portable ladders — much as pirates have been doing — and swiftly took over the ship. Two helicopters hovered overhead, throwing down cones of light. A Turkish frigate, part of the American-led antipiracy task force, was nearby.
Marine Corps officers said the attack involved "overwhelming force" and the element of surprise. Marines were able to separate the pirates and confront them singly or in small groups, while helicopters bore down.
The pirates, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, gave up quickly when faced with large numbers of Marines carrying heavier weaponry.
"The pirates were definitely overmatched," Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of the 5th Fleet, said in a telephone interview. "We created a good plan and executed it really well."
Getting word to the crew barricaded in the safe space proved to be a challenge for rescuers, however. Marines had to drill through steel walls to reach the suspicious sailors.
Capt. Alexander Martin said the crew was finally convinced that they were being rescued when a Marine ripped the American flag patch from his uniform and stuffed it through a hole the rescuers had bored in the steel door.
It was the first boarding raid by the multinational task force since it was formed in January 2009 to patrol off the Horn of Africa, said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost in Bahrain.
Raids earlier this year that recaptured ships from Somali pirates were by Dutch and Russian commandos who were not part of the antipiracy task force.
In Thursday's mission, there were no injuries reported among the Marines or crew of the Magellan Star and no shots were fired, Fage said.
The ship was traveling from Bilbao, Spain, to Singapore with a cargo of anchor chains, Salamon said. It is now en route to Dubai for repairs.
The U.S. team from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Maritime Raid Force launched the assault from aboard the USS Dubuque, an amphibious transport ship that had been en route to a joint training exercise with Jordan.
It received orders from the White House to assist the antipiracy task force, said Brig. Gen. David Berger, the head of Marine Corps operations at the Pentagon.
"It's a great thing that everything ended without any bloodshed," Salamon said.
U.S. warships are part of a 25-nation mission protecting merchant vessels from pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia and into the Gulf of Aden. The task force often opens fire on suspected pirates but had not previously launched a boarding raid.
It was not clear what will happen to the captured pirates. They were in custody aboard one of the ships in the task force, and the officers on the scene are awaiting orders from higher levels.
While hundreds of Somali pirates have recently been sent to jail in Kenya, the Seychelles or Somalia, and a few have even been taken to Europe and the United States, many more have been set free by Western navies in a controversial "catch and release" approach because of the complications of prosecuting gunmen arrested on the high seas.
Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.