|Fearing for their lives, the crew locked themselves inside an armoured area of the ship and waited for help [Reuters]
British and US commandos have raided an Italian vessel hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia, rescuing the carrier's 23 crew members and capturing its assailants, Italy's foreign ministry said.
"The vessel [Montecristo] has been freed... thanks to the joint intervention of two ships from the United States and British navies" operating as part of NATO's anti-piracy operations, the foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The 11 pirates who hijacked the cargo ship "gave themselves up and are being held in detention", the statement continued.
The crew, seven Italians, six Ukrainians and 10 Indians, locked themselves inside an armoured area of the vessel when the pirates boarded the ship on Monday, said Ignazio La Russa, Italy's defence minister.
La Russa told journalists that the US and British commandos had used helicopters to judge the level of danger a raid would pose to the crew, but had met no resistance from the pirates.
Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister, described the raid as "an important operation in international anti-piracy collaboration" and praised the British and American commandos for the mission's success.
"We are relieved, but have not yet been able to contact the crew," said a spokesman for the Tuscany-based D'Alesio shipping company. "In the meantime, we are contacting the families," he added.
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," Antonio Raimondo told Italy's ANSA news agency.
The Montecristo was travelling from Liverpool to Vietnam with a cargo of scrap iron when it was captured by pirates about 1,000km east of the Somali coast on Monday. The pirates had made no demands.
Earlier on Tuesday, Italy's shipowners association, Confitarma, announced it was signing a protocol with the defence ministry to allow military forces to travel aboard ships in dangerous areas to ward off pirate attacks.
Pirates flourish off largely lawless Somalia by attacking passing ships, taking hostages and demanding ransoms to free them and the vessels.
On April 21 Somali pirates captured an Italian cargo ship headed for Iran with 21 crew on board, including six Italians, in the Arabian Sea near Oman.
In the same month, a Danish assault team freed 18 hostages after boarding a hijacked vessel off Somalia's coast. Ten days later, South Korean commandos stormed a container ship and freed 21 hostages on board.
Pirates currently hold at least 10 ships and 251 people hostage, according to Harrie Harrison, commander of the anti-piracy military coalition European Union Naval Force.