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Russian forces seize oil tanker from Somali pirates

By Ludmila Danilova

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian forces seized a hijacked Russian oil tanker from Somali pirates and rescued its crew in a helicopter-backed operation in the Gulf of Aden on Thursday that killed one of the pirates, authorities said.

The 10 other pirates who captured the China-bound MV Moscow University with 23-member crew and a cargo of crude oil worth $52 million surrendered and were taken to a nearby warship.

Investigators initially announced plans to bring the pirates to Moscow for prosecution, but later backtracked. A spokeswoman for the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General's office said no final decision had been taken, but that they were unlikely to be brought to Moscow.

The rescue was a boost for the Kremlin, which has been seeking to revive Russia's naval muscle far from its shores despite limited resources.

President Dmitry Medvedev congratulated Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in a televised meeting and ordered that all those involved receive medals for their part in the rescue.

"It was accurate, professional and quick," Medvedev said.

The pirates opened fire on a helicopter dispatched from Russia's Marshal Shaposhnikov warship early on Thursday morning, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov said in televised comments.

When the Russians returned fire from a heavy caliber machine gun, the pirates surrendered by radio and three groups of special forces boarded the ship to detain them.

"Despite armed resistance from the pirates, we freed all the crew members," Kuznetsov said. He said one pirate was killed and some of the 10 who were captured were injured.

The crew survived the 20-hour siege by hiding in a safe room that was inaccessible to the hijackers, a spokeswoman for the tanker's owner, Novorossiysk Shipping Company, said.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said the tanker would most likely continue on its planned voyage to China.

Somali pirates have extorted tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from shipowners and insurers and are still able to seize ships despite the presence of an international fleet of warships in the busy shipping lanes linking Europe with Asia.

Somalia lacks the legal infrastructure to support trials, and captured pirates are often released because of disagreements over which country should try them.

Kenya and the Seychelles have prosecuted dozens of pirates handed over by foreign navies, but have both said they would have difficulties coping with the numbers if every seized pirate was placed in their hands.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council suggested creating special piracy courts to plug a gap in the world response to the costly attacks on merchant ships off Somalia's coast.

Medvedev said the international community was dragging its feet on the issue.

"What exactly is the problem? We all know that it's an evil, and we can't seem to agree on how to fight it," he said.

Russia has been sending warships to patrol and protect Russian crews and cargoes off the Horn of Africa since the hijacking of the Ukrainian-owned cargo ship MV Faina in 2008 and the death of its Russian captain. The Faina was carrying a cargo of 33 battle tanks and other weapons.

Two Russian fishing vessels were hijacked in the early 2000s off Somalia, but Wednesday's attack was the first on a large Russian-owned merchant vessel, said Andrew Mwangura, who runs the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program.

Some oil tankers are sailing around southern Africa and further east into the Indian Ocean, away from Somalia's coastline, to avoid the Gulf of Aden and pirates who are striking deeper out at sea, shipping experts say.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Nairobi, Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Toni Vorobyova and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Conor Humphries; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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