WASHINGTON — A US Navy ship has rescued 13 Iranians held hostage by Somali pirates for weeks in the Arabian Sea, the American military said on Friday.
The rescue effort came despite days of rising tensions between Iran and the United States, with Tehran issuing threats and warning America not to send the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier through the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
But one of the ships accompanying the Stennis, the USS Kidd, came to the aid Thursday of Iranians on the fishing dhow Al Molai, whose captain issued a call for help saying "he was being held captive by the pirates."
The American destroyer responded to the distress call from the Iranian-flagged fishing vessel and sent in a Navy team to free the Iranian crew, the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said.
"A visit, board, search and seizure team from Kidd boarded the Al Molai and detained 15 suspected pirates who had been holding a 13-member Iranian crew hostage for several weeks," the statement said.
"The Al Molai had been pirated and used as a 'mother ship' for pirate operations throughout the Persian Gulf, according to members of the Iranian vessel's crew," it added.
The detained pirates -- believed to be Somalis -- were being held on the Stennis, said a Pentagon spokesman, Captain John Kirby.
"The Iranians and the dhow have been released and are on their way back home," Kirby told AFP.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta late called the carrier and spoke to Rear Admiral Craig Faller, commander of the unit which conducted the operation, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Panetta congratulated Faller and the team, saying it was a "well executed effort," according to a statement.
"When we get a distress signal, we're going to respond. That's the nature of what our country is all about," Panetta said, according to the statement.
Prior to Thursday's rescue, another Iranian vessel, a motor boat, had issued a distress call while under suspected attack from pirates.
A helicopter from the USS Mobile Bay, another naval ship assigned to the Stennis carrier group, responded to the call for help, Kirby said.
But the pirates threw objects into the water and "they boarded the skiff and couldn't detain the pirates because there was no evidence," he added.
The US and other navies frequently respond to distress calls sparked by pirate attacks in the region, but Thursday's incident took on special significance after a string of bellicose statements from Tehran over the Gulf.
With the West piling pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program and the EU threatening a total ban on Iranian oil imports, Iran has threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz -- which links the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and through which 20 percent of the world's sea-transported oil flows.
The US Navy has said it will not tolerate any such move.
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