ROME (Reuters) - U.S. and British naval forces freed the crew of a hijacked Italian cargo ship in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday and captured 11 pirates in a notable success against Somali gangs who cost the world economy billions of dollars each year.
The freeing of the 55,675-ton bulk carrier Montecristo was announced by Italian officials and a British defense spokesman, who said the rescue was carried out by an American frigate and a Royal Navy support vessel.
Contrary to initial Italian reports that special forces stormed the vessel, the British spokesman said the pirates surrendered without resistance when the warships reached the Montecristo. A Royal Navy team then boarded it unopposed.
All 23 crew members from Italy, India and Ukraine were freed unhurt. The ship was hijacked Monday morning 600 miles off the Somali coast.
A key element in the success of the operation was that the crew were able to maintain control of the ship's motors and steering from inside an armor-plated "citadel" or shelter on board, preventing the pirates from either controlling it or threatening their lives, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said.
He told a news conference the crew had thrown a bottle overboard with a note saying they were safe and not under direct threat, clearing the way for a military operation to be launched.
The Italian foreign ministry said the crew were able to steer the ship closer to an international anti-piracy task force.
Secured "citadels" are increasingly being installed on merchant vessels as part of measures to counter piracy, which also include using razor wire to impede boarding parties.
Somali pirates, operating on small inflatables, normally use comparatively light weapons of rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.
The foreign ministry said the U.S. and Britain had operated under the orders of Italian Admiral Gualtiero Mattesi, commander of the NATO Ocean Shield anti-piracy task force. The proximity of five vessels in the force assisted the speedy rescue.
La Russa said the Somalis surrendered when a British helicopter flew overhead and the boarding party was then launched in inflatable boats. He said the pirates would be handed to Italian judicial authorities.
Earlier, La Russa said Italy would shortly deploy a special naval force on merchant vessels in an escalation of international efforts to combat piracy.
Many ships already carry private security contractors, but deployment of military forces is a significant boost in measures that had previously been hampered by disputes over the legality of using lethal force.
La Russa said the new force of naval soldiers would be divided into 10 groups of six to protect vessels using the busy but highly vulnerable waterways in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. It would be based in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Somali pirates operate hundreds of miles off the coast in vast tracts of ocean by using mother ships from which small boats are launched.
The commander of the Italian navy, Admiral Bruno Branciforte, told reporters the new naval force would be deployed quickly, after its rules of engagement had been defined.
The defense ministry signed a protocol Tuesday with Italian shipowners on deployment of the force, for which the owners will pay the costs.
"The operating area of Somali pirates is a zone through which passes a third of the West's oil and 20 percent of other cargo, it is a zone of primary economic importance," said shipowners federation president Paolo d'Amico.
Somali pirates, operating from the shores of the lawless state in the Horn of Africa, have raked in millions of dollars a year in ransoms from scores of hijacked ships from around the world, including oil super tankers.
The Italian move was welcomed by Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) which represents more than 80 per cent of the world's merchant fleet.
"We do indeed want more governments to deploy armed military guards on merchant ships whilst they are transiting the high risk piracy area," he said.
"The Italian move is an example to other governments of the need to take this issue very seriously indeed. This year alone 400 seafarers have been held hostage by Somali pirates, and 15 have lost their lives."
Some 24 Italian ships have been hijacked this year in the area compared to 31 last year but the high season for piracy is about to begin after the end of the monsoon.
Last month the shipping industry called on the United Nations to create an armed military force to be deployed on vessels to counter the escalating menace from armed seaborne gangs.
While there has been a growing acceptance of using armed security guards, sovereign military forces are preferred by the shipping industry because they have clearer rules of engagement and a reduced risk of legal issues in the event of fatalities.
The Montecristo left Liverpool on September 20 heading for Vietnam, and passed through the Suez canal at the beginning of October. It was escorted by a Japanese warship -- part of an international anti-piracy force in the area -- as it crossed the Gulf of Aden.
While naval patrols, including vessels from the European Union, the United States and other nations such as South Korea, Iran and Turkey, have curbed the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden, piracy in the Indian Ocean has continued to rise due to the vast tracts of water involved, which represent a huge logistical challenge for foreign navies.
Additional reporting by Catherine Hornby, Antonella Cinelli and Daniel Mari in Rome, Jonathan Saul, Stefano Ambrogi and David Cutler in London; Editing by Giles Elgood and Rosalind Russell