The same U.S. aircraft carrier group that Iran warned not to return to the Gulf has rescued 13 Iranians held hostage for weeks by pirates in the Arabian Sea, the Pentagon said on Friday.
The rescue operation took place on Thursday, when forces with the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group received a distress call from the master of the Al Molai, an Iranian-flagged fishing vessel, who said he was being held captive by pirates.
The U.S. forces also detected a suspected pirate skiff alongside the Al Molai. The pirates had apparently been using the vessel as a "mother ship" to conduct operations.
"The Al Molai had been taken over by pirates for roughly the last 40-45 days," Josh Schminky, a Navy criminal investigative service agent aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd, said in a statement.
"They were held hostage, with limited rations, and we believe were forced against their will to assist the pirates with other piracy operations," he said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Captain John Kirby said the crew of 15 pirates, all believed to be Somalis, were now being detained aboard the Stennis.
Iran ratcheted up tensions earlier this week by threatening to take action if the Stennis returned to the Gulf after departing on December 27.
Army chief Major General Ataollah Salehi said on Tuesday: "I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf ... we are not in the habit of warning more than once."
Iran announced plans on Friday to hold new naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz next month, the latest in a series of forceful gestures in the world's most important oil shipping lane.
It was not clear whether Iran's navy was aware of the rescue operation but the freed Iranian hostages, now on their way back home, had thanked the U.S. crew, the Navy said.
"The captain of the Al Molai expressed his sincere gratitude that we came to assist them. He was afraid that without our help, they could have been there for months," said Schminky.