U.S. Navy Ship Saves Iranians From Pirates

A U.S. Navy ship has rescued the crew of an Iranian fishing vessel from pirates. The Iranians had apparently been held for weeks. The U.S. ship, part of the USS Stennis carrier battle group, took some 15 pirates prisoner. The Stennis is the same ship that Iran threatened just a few days ago as it transited out of the Persian Gulf. Robert Siegel talks to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman for the latest.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, a story with this you-can't-make-it-up headline: Americans Rescue Iranian's From Pirates. According to the U.S. Navy, yesterday in the North Arabian Sea, a Navy battle group came across a fishing vessel in distress. The crew was Iranian and they'd been held hostage for weeks by pirates. And here's the irony: The American battle group included the same aircraft carrier that Iran's government threatened earlier this week.

NPR's Tom Bowman has been following the story, and he joins us now from the Pentagon. And, Tom, walk us through what happened here.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, this all started yesterday shortly after noon off Oman, and not far from the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Now, a U.S. Navy ship got a distress call from a different ship; this large vessel. And that distress call said they were about to be boarded by pirates carrying rocket-propelled grenades.

The Navy ship sent out a helicopter which hovered above the suspected pirates. Then the Navy followed them back to an Iranian fishing boat, which the supposed pirates were using as a mother ship. Now, aboard that fishing boat they found 13 Iranians who said they were held by pirates for at least two months.

The Navy crew gave them food and water and clothing, and sent them on their way and took what they say are 15 Somali pirates aboard the USS John Stennis, an aircraft carrier. And through it all, not a shot was fired.

SIEGEL: And these U.S. Navy ships, these were the same - from the same carrier battle group that had just left the Persian Gulf, and Iran threatened them if they returned?

BOWMAN: That's right, Robert. The two American ships involved here, the cruiser Mobile Bay and the destroyer USS Kidd, were from that same carrier group. And the carrier, John Stennis now holding the alleged pirates, is the same ship the Iranian government warned not to come back to the Persian Gulf.

And a lot of this tough talk, of course, revolves around the prospect of more sanctions aimed at the Iranian government over their nuclear program. And the thing is this saber rattling really isn't all that new. Four years ago, Iranian naval vessels threatened to shoot U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf and then withdrew.

SIEGEL: But back to today's rescue of the Iranians who'd been held by the pirates. In the movies, this would lead to a sudden warming of relations with Tehran and everything would be happy. Not today, huh?

BOWMAN: Oh, no warm relations yet and actually no word at all from the Iranian government about what happened here. The Navy does say the Iranian fishing boat captain, however, was very thankful. And that some of the clothing the Iranians got, there's some talk that includes U.S. Navy t-shirts. But no firm word on whether than happened or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Tom Bowman speaking to us from the Pentagon.

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