At dawn Friday, South Korean commandos steered their boat to a hijacked freighter in the Arabian Sea. Under covering fire from a destroyer and a Lynx helicopter, they scrambled up a ladder onto the ship, where Somali pirates were armed with assault rifles and anti-tank missiles.
Five hours after the risky rescue began, it was over.
All 21 hostages were freed from the gunfire-scarred freighter. Eight pirates were killed and five were captured in what President Lee Myung-bak called a "perfect operation."
The remarkable ending to the daring and rare raid handed South Korea a stunning success in the battle against pirates who have long tormented shipping in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
The lone casualty among the crew was the captain, identified as Seok Bae-gyun, 58, who was shot in the stomach by a pirate, the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported. He was taken by a U.S. helicopter to a nearby country for treatment, but the wound was not life-threatening, Lt. Gen. Lee Sung-ho of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters in Seoul.
The successful raid also was a triumph for South Korea's president and military. Both came under harsh criticism at home for being too slow and weak in the response to a North Korean attack in November on a South Korean island near disputed waters that killed two marines and two civilians.
A week earlier, the Somali attackers had seized the Samho Jewelry, a 11,500-ton chemical carrier sailing from the United Arab Emirates to Sri Lanka.
"We will not tolerate any behavior that threatens the lives and safety of our people in the future," President Lee said in a brief televised statement.
The wife of a South Korean crew member wept in gratitude as the hijacking ended.
The unidentified woman told the Yonhap news agency that "family members couldn't sleep or eat well and prayed for a safe return. I am very relieved."
In 2009, U.S. Navy snipers shot three pirates who were holding an American captain hostage in a lifeboat after they had abandoned a larger ship, the Maersk Alabama.