President Lee Myung-bak praised a contingent of Navy commandos as “heroes” of South Korea on Monday, lauding their daring raid in January to free a seized freighter from Somali pirates.
The Cheonghae unit of naval commandos returned home Friday after completing a six-month anti-piracy mission in waters near Somalia that included a successful Jan. 21 operation to rescue the 21-member crew of the South Korean-owned freighter Samho Jewelry from the hands of Somali pirates.
On Monday, Lee invited the commandos to a luncheon at the presidential office.
“You are heroes of the Republic of Korea and the proud vanguard of the Republic of Korea,” Lee said during the luncheon, using South Korea’s official name. The unit demonstrated the strength of South Korea’s military guaranteeing the lives and properties of the people, Lee said.
Lee ordered members of the unit to take a special leave of absence.
The January raid came six days after the cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates. All 21 crew members were rescued alive, though the ship’s captain suffered multiple gunshot wounds. The captain, Seok Hae-kyun, has been recovering after several rounds of surgery.
The commandos killed eight pirates and captured five others alive during the raid. The five were then brought to South Korea to stand trial. On Friday, a court in the port city of Busan sentenced one of them, who was accused of shooting the captain, to life in prison. Three others were handed prison terms of 13 to 15 years.
A verdict for the fifth pirate is due on Wednesday.