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British and US marines storm ship hijacked by Somali pirates

Armed marines overwhelm vessel's captors after being alerted by a message in a bottle thrown through porthole

British and US special forces yesterday stormed a ship that had been hijacked by Somali pirates and freed its crew after being alerted to their plight by a message in a bottle.

Royal Navy forces aboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Fort Victoria confronted the hijacked carrier Montecristo 620 miles off the Somali coast following the discovery of the old-fashioned distress call.

Armed marines in inflatable boats surrounded the captured ship while a British helicopter buzzed the bridge persuading the pirates to throw their weapons into the sea.

All 23 crew who had barricaded themselves into a secure room were freed unharmed. Eleven pirates were detained in the operation which also involved a US frigate taking part in the Nato-led mission in the region. One suffered a minor hand injury.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the pirates surrendered without firing a shot although they are believed to have been heavily armed. "A Royal Naval boarding team carried out a compliant boarding of the vessel and the suspected pirates are being detained," he said.

The operation comes amid mounting speculation that pirates were broadening their tactics from the high seas where they are facing growing resistance from the international taskforce and instead concentrating on to softer on-shore targets.

Last month British publisher David Tebbutt, 58, was shot dead while staying at a safari village in Kenya near the border with Somalia. His wife Judith, 56, is believed to have been taken across the frontier.

Yesterday's operation was authorised by embattled Defence Secretary Liam Fox with his Italian counterpart Ignazio La Russa, who said he believed the piracy danger was increasing. Gangs are currently believed to be holding up to 17 ships including fishing vessels, chemical and oil tankers as well as 251 hostages in waters off Somalia.

The lucrative trade has netted the criminal gangs millions of dollars in ransom money for the return of ships and their valuable cargoes.

The problem is expected to escalate in the coming weeks following the end of the monsoon season in the Indian Ocean.

The crew of the Montecristo was made up of seven Italians, including a four-strong unarmed security unit, as well as six Ukrainians and 10 Indians. They had left Liverpool on 20 September carrying iron to Vietnam.

The 56,000-tonne carrier passed through the Suez Canal at the beginning of October and was escorted by a Japanese warship as it crossed the Gulf of Aden but was attacked on Monday in the Somali Basin by pirates in a small boat.

The Italian defence ministry said the crew took refuge in an armoured area where they issued a call for help.