ROME — British and U.S. forces freed an Italian cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in a dramatic rescue Tuesday after retrieving a message in a bottle tossed by hostages from a porthole alerting ships nearby the crew was safely sealed inside an armored area.
All 23 crew members of the Montecristo cargo ship were brought to safety, the Italian Foreign Ministry said. The 11 pirates were taken into custody.
The crew – seven Italians, six Ukrainians and 10 Indians – locked themselves inside an armored area of the vessel when the pirates boarded the ship Monday, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said. Safe from the pirates threats, the crew continued to navigate the ship.
"The criminals managed to cut off all means of communication, but the 'prisoners' tossed a bottle with a message through a porthole explaining the situation," La Russa told a news conference.
At that point, other ships in the area were aware that the Italian vessel had been boarded by pirates. But the message in the bottle gave an important signal that the crew of the Italian ship was out of harm's way and that a rescue operation could be launched without risking injury.
"Rubber boats circled the Montecristo, while a helicopter hovered above. The pirates surrendered right away, some throwing their weapons in the sea, and were arrested," he said.
One crew member sustained a light hand injury, La Russa said.
The pirates attacked the ship Monday 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) off Somalia as the crew was hauling scrap iron to Vietnam on a journey that had begun Sept. 20 in Liverpool, England.
The father of one of the crew members, Pietro Raimondo, said Italian officials had told him that his son was in good shape.
"We are happy. We are celebrating the liberation," said Antonio Raimondo from Sardinia, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.
The operation was carried out by two navy ships – one British and one American – and coordinated by Italian Adm. Gualtiero Mattesi as part of NATO's Ocean Shield anti-piracy force, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry.
Britain's Defense Ministry said the RFA Fort Victoria "responded to calls to assist a pirated Italian merchant ship, the MV Montecristo, along with an American Navy frigate." Because of the presence of warships, the pirates on board surrendered without force, it said.
Pirates flourish off largely lawless Somalia by attacking passing ships, taking hostages and demanding ransoms to free them and the vessels.
Earlier Tuesday, La Russa said security forces – groups of six armed marines – can be used as security guards on Italian ships sailing in perilous waters, noting that "the danger of piracy has increased."
International militaries are increasingly tasking assault teams with boarding ships and battling pirates in order to win the release of hostages.
In April this year, a Danish assault team freed 18 hostages after boarding a vessel off Somalia's coast. Three pirates were wounded.
Only 10 days later South Korean commandos stormed a container ships and freed the 21 crew on board. In May Indonesian forces killed four Somali pirates after the hostage-takers were paid a ransom and freed hostages.
But for every successful attack against hostage-taking pirates, far more pirates make it back to Somalia with their hostages in hand. A Danish yachting family of five was taken by pirates in February from their 43-foot (13-meter) yacht. The family was released last month.
And one attempted rescue of four hijacked Americans abroad their private yacht went horribly wrong in February when the pirates killed the four as U.S. naval ships shadowed the yacht.
Pirates hold at least 10 ships and 251 hostages, according to Cmdr. Harrie Harrison of the anti-piracy military coalition European Union Naval Force.
Colleen Barry contributed to this report from Milan.