Pentagon says Somali pirates likely behind seizure of commercial ship near Yemen

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(WASHINGTON) — Attackers who seized a commercial ship in the Gulf of Aden this weekend appear to have been Somali pirates, the Defense Department’s top spokesman told reporters at the Pentagon Monday.

A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer and allied ships belonging to a counter-piracy task force on Sunday responded to a distress call from the crew of the Central Park, which had been boarded by five armed individuals, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Monday.

“They attempted to access the crew cabin. The crew, essentially, were able to lock themselves into a safe haven. These individuals attempted to access and take control of the ship,” he said.

The U.S. and coalition ships arrived on scene and demanded release of the vessel, according to U.S. Central Command.

“When the combined task force responded, they essentially fled,” Ryder said.

A “visit board search and seizure” (VBSS) team from the USS Mason gave chase and fired warning shots at the fleeing assailants, who surrendered and were detained. The VBSS team then boarded the Central Park to clear the vessel and ensure the crew was safe, according to Ryder. The five are currently aboard the USS Mason, he said.

Ryder said there were three Chinese navy ships in the area of the Central Park, but they did not respond to the commercial vessel’s distress call.

“Supposedly, those ships are there as part of a counter-piracy mission, but they did not respond,” he said.

About an hour and 40 minutes after U.S. forces boarded the Central Park to check on its crew, two ballistic missiles were fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen “toward the general location” of the Mason and Central Park, which were still near each other, according to Central Command.

The Mason tracked the projectiles, but did not need to take defensive measures, as they fell into the Gulf of Aden about 10 nautical miles from the ships, according to defense officials.

“It is not clear at this time what they were targeting,” Ryder said of the missiles.

The two incidents do not seem to be directly related, a U.S. defense official told ABC News on Monday.

The ship seizure was “clearly a piracy-related incident,” according to Ryder, who said that while the U.S. continues to assess the situation, “we know that they’re not Houthi.”

Earlier this month, Iran-backed Houthi militants downed an American Reaper drone as it was flying in international airspace near Yemen, a U.S. defense official said at the time.

“We can confirm that a U.S. military MQ-9 remotely-piloted aircraft was shot down off the coast of Yemen by Houthi forces,” the official said.

Meanwhile, other Iran-backed groups have launched at least 73 drone and rocket attacks against U.S. troops based in Iraq and Syria since mid-October, after the Hamas terror attack on Israel. At least 70 American service members have been injured in this ongoing spate of attacks, the last three of which occurred on Thanksgiving, according to U.S. defense officials.

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