U.S. Navy says it rescues Iranian sailors again

Cmdr. Christopher M. Senenko, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS James E. Williams, presents command ball caps to rescued mariners after their vessel caught fire in the Gulf of Oman. U.S. Navy photo

(CBS/AP) DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The U.S. Navy says it has rescued 10 mariners who claim to be Iranian from a burning boat in the Gulf of Oman.

Wednesday's rescue by the USS James E. Williams is at least the seventh involving Iranian sailors in nearly two years and is a reminder of U.S. efforts to demonstrate the humanitarian value of its naval presence in the Gulf, a strategic waterway the Iranian government has threatened to close in retaliation for international sanctions over its nuclear program.

The sailors were rescued from a traditional wooden boat flying an Iranian flag and transported aboard the U.S. vessel where they received medical treatment and are awaiting transport to aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which is coordinating repatriation efforts, said Lt. Greg Raelson, spokesman for the Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.

Earlier this year, another Navy ship rescued 13 Iranian fishermen held by pirates. The government of Iran called it a positive humanitarian gesture.

Those fishermen had been rescued by a U.S. Navy destroyer more than 40 days after their boat was commandeered by suspected Somali pirates in the northern Arabian Sea. The rescue came just days after Tehran warned the U.S. to keep the same group of warships out of the Persian Gulf in a reflection of Iran's fear that American warships could try to enforce an embargo against Iranian oil exports.

Amid escalating tension with Iran over its nuclear program, the Obama administration reveled in announcing the earlier rescue, and highlighted the fact that the rescuing ships were the same ones Iran's army chief had just said were no longer welcome in the Persian Gulf.

"Basically, rescuing trading and fishing boats from the hands of pirates in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden is considered a completely normal issue," Iran's state news agency said. "A U.S. helicopter filming the rescue operation from the first minute makes it look like a Hollywood drama with specific locations and actors. It shows the Americans tried to publicize it through the media and present the American warship as a savior."

The Iranian news agency reported in April that Iranian naval commandos had driven off pirates attempting to hijack a supertanker off Pakistan's southwestern coast.

"Iran's navy has rescued various foreign ships from the hands of pirates ... but never publicized that," it said.

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