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U.S. Navy detains 17 suspected pirates

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A team of specialized American sailors apprehended 17 suspected pirates who attacked an Egyptian merchant ship in the dangerous waters off Yemen, the U.S. Navy said Thursday.

The sailors from the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg also seized eight assault rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher when they boarded the pirates’ vessel Wednesday in the Gulf of Aden, said the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.

The Gettysburg launched the operation with the help of the Korean Destroyer ROKS Munmu the Great after the pirates fired at the Egyptian-flagged Motor Vessel Amira about 75 miles south of Yemen’s al-Mukalla port, the Navy said. Both ships dispatched helicopters during the mission.

The Gulf of Aden is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, connecting Europe and Asia via the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is used by 20,000 ships a year and has become the world’s hot spot for pirate attacks.

The 17 pirates seized were taken aboard the Gettysburg for further questioning, said the Navy. They were operating from a “mothership” — a larger vessel pirates often use to resupply the small speedboats that attack ships far offshore. The Navy did not say what happened to the mothership after the operation.

Also Thursday, Iranian state television said the country will send two warships to join an international flotilla protecting cargo ships from pirates off the Somali coast.

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaei, made the commitment in a letter he sent to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday, according to a report on the Web site of Iran’s press TV.

The ships will leave within the next two days for a five-month assignment and will join vessels from the U.S., Denmark, Italy, Russia, China and other countries.

Somali pirates have significantly stepped up their attacks in recent years. They hijacked a cargo ship operated by Iran off the Somali coast in November, the second in the past six months.

At least 19 ships and over 250 sailors are now being held hostage by Somali pirates. Last year, 42 ships were seized and pirates earned an estimated $1 million or more in ransom each time they freed a ship.

The pirates operate freely because Somalia has had no effective central government in nearly 20 years. Nearly every public institution has crumbled, and the U.N.-backed government controls only limited territory and is fighting an Islamic insurgency.

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