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U.S. Coast Guard rescues 6 Iranians in Persian Gulf

By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
January 10, 2012 -- Updated 1746 GMT (0146 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Last week, the U.S. Navy rescued Iranian sailors held captive by pirates
  • The Iranians' merchant vessel apparently flooded
  • Iran has said it does not want U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf

(CNN) -- The U.S. Coast Guard rescued six Iranian mariners at the northern end of the Persian Gulf early Tuesday, the Pentagon said.

The rescue is the second time in a week that Americans rescued Iranians at sea, intervals of goodwill during a wave of tension between Iran and the United States, which have been adversaries for decades.

The latest incident took place around 50 miles southeast of the Iraqi port of Um Qasr.

The Pentagon said the Coast Guard cutter Monomoy reported the rescue took place after the Iranians' small merchant vessel, a cargo dhow called Ya-Hussan, apparently flooded.

The cutter responded to flares and flashlights from the vessels in distress. The six Iranians were taken on board and one was treated for non-serious injuries.

They were given water, blankets and halal meals. The meals are prepared in accordance with Muslim law and kept on ships in case there are Muslim mariners in distress.

Also, an interpreter helped in the rescue.

"Saving lives is the last thing you expect to do at 0300 while patrolling in the Northern Arabian Gulf, but being in the Coast Guard, that's what we are trained to do," said Boatswain Mate 2nd Class Emily Poole, Monomoy's medic.

The Pentagon quoted Hakim Hamid-Awi, the owner of the Ya-Hassan, as saying, "Without your help, we were dead. Thank you for all that you did for us."

The six were transferred by rigid hull inflatable boats from the Monomoy to the Iranian Coast Guard vessel Naji 7.

The Naji 7 captain via translator sent his regards and thanks to the captain and crew "for assisting, and taking care of the Iranian sailors." The captain thanked the crew for its "cooperation."

There wasn't an immediate reaction from the Iranian government.

Last week, U.S. sailors from a carrier strike group whose recent presence in the Persian Gulf drew the ire of Iranian military officials rescued 13 Iranian sailors from a hijacked fishing boat.

The destroyer USS Kidd came to the aid of the ship Thursday in the North Arabian Sea, near the crucial Strait of Hormuz, according to the Navy.

A helicopter from the Kidd spotted a suspected pirate boat alongside the Iranian vessel, the Navy said, and about the same time, the Kidd received a distress call from the fishing boat's captain, saying pirates were holding him and his crew captive.

A team from the Kidd boarded the vessel, took 15 suspected pirates into custody, and freed the 13 Iranian hostages, the Navy said.

A spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, Ramin Mehmanparast, had positive words about the rescue when he spoke Saturday to the Arabic news network Al-Alam.

"Rescuing Iranian sailors by the U.S. was a humanitarian act and we welcome such acts," he said. "The Iranian Navy also engages in such rescue operations. It is the responsibility of all nations to rescue nationals from other countries from pirates."

That came during a war of words between Iran and the United States.

Iran threatened to close the strategically important Strait of Hormuz if Western nations carried through with sanctions on its oil industry. The strait connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and is a major corridor for oil tankers.

Western powers have been intensifying pressure on Iran with sanctions over its nuclear aspirations. World powers believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons but Iran says it is harnessing nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

The destroyer is part of the USS John Stennis Strike Group, which moved into the Arabian Sea from the Persian Gulf recently. The group's presence in the Persian Gulf had drawn the ire of Iranian military officials, who said the United States should not send any more warships into the Gulf.

Iranian Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi last week said "there is no need" for countries outside of the region to have a presence there.

"Their presence does nothing but create mayhem," Vahidi said, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.

The suspected pirates, mostly Somalis, were taken to the Stennis to be held until a decision is made about prosecution, Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said Friday.

Pirates hijacked the fishing vessel, the Al Molai, 40 to 45 days ago, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said in a statement. The crew was "held hostage, with limited rations and we believe were forced against their will to assist the pirates with other piracy operations," according to the statement.

The Navy team provided food, water and medical care to both the suspected pirates and the Al Molai's crew after securing the ship and ensuring everyone was safe, said Josh Schminky, a Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent aboard the Kidd.

The crew had "been through a lot," he said, adding, "We went out of our way to treat the fishing crew with kindness and respect."

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