(ATTN: UPDATES with remarks of Cheonghae Unit commander and Samho Jewelry sailors in paras 6-9)
SEOUL/MUSCAT, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean freighter freed from Somali pirates in a commando rescue operation earlier this month docked at a port in Oman on Monday, and the seven Korean crew members aboard the vessel are expected to return home Wednesday, officials said.
The 11,500-ton Samho Jewelry and its 21 crew members, including eight South Koreans, were freed in a Jan. 21 commando raid. All crew members were rescued alive -- though the captain was seriously wounded -- in the daring operation that also killed eight pirates and captured five others alive.
The 58-year-old captain, Seok Hae-kyun, was flown to South Korea on Saturday and remains in serious condition. The captured pirates were also brought to South Korea on Sunday for criminal punishment and have since been formally arrested.
After the operation, the chemical carrier moved to Omani waters and stayed there, awaiting approval from Oman to enter the port of Muscat. The ship, which is under escort of a South Korean warship, was carrying the other 20 crew members, which include seven South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 from Myanmar.
On Monday, the ship entered the port of Muscat, along with the South Korean warship Choi Young, after the Omani government granted approval a day earlier. South Korea's ambassador to Oman Choe Jong-hyun and other officials greeted the ship's arrival.
"We have realized that what the (Korean) people want is a strong military and a military that wins battles. After finishing the rescue operation, we clearly realized that we must protect our people anywhere in the world," Cho Young-joo, commander of the Cheonghae Unit, which includes the destroyer Choi Young, told reporters after landing at the port of Muscat.
"We just did our best but the Korean people gave us too much praise. All members of the Cheonghae Unit have high morale. Our success was also a result of close cooperation between the Republic of Korea and its allies," said Cho, expressing his wish for the quick recovery of Samho Jewelry captain Seok.
Samho Jewelry's acting captain, Lee Ki-yong, also expressed his gratitude to the Korean people through Ambassador Choe.
The ambassador said he met with Lee and all other crew members aboard the freighter and they all appeared calm and healthy.
Officials said the crew are expected to receive medical checkups before disembarking the ship.
All of the seven Korean crew members have expressed their desire to return home, and are expected to leave for South Korea on Tuesday and arrive home on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun in Seoul said. Kim added that there have been no reports of any health problems among the crew.
It was unclear whether the foreign crew members will also return to their countries after arriving at the port. A foreign ministry official in Seoul said that the crew members from Indonesia and Myanmar will be able to choose their next steps.
The cargo ship plans to depart from the port of Muscat for Dubai in several days for repairs.
In Busan, where the captured pirates are being held for investigation, officials said Monday that one of the pirates briefly confessed to shooting Captain Seok before reversing course and denying the allegations again.
Arai Mahomed made the confession during questioning Sunday, but he took it back after one of his colleagues pointed at him and said it was he that fired on Seok, officials said. In a court arraignment held Sunday to determine whether to issue arrest warrants, one pirate pointed at another as the culprit who fired on Seok, officials said.
Investigators are focusing questioning to determine if Arai Mahomed is the one who shot the captain, as some of the cargo ship's crew stated in written statements about the incident that it was Mahomed who shot Seok.
"We have evidence backing the claim that one of the five pirates shot Captain Seok," chief investigator Kim Chung-gyu said.
Investigators also said that the pirates had plotted the crime half a month before carrying it out. Officials said they were looking into whether the pirates pinpointed the Samho Jewelry as their target after learning that a South Korean supertanker was freed after paying a huge ransom.
Officials disclosed details of the pirates' identities, saying they are aged between 19-23 and had other professions before becoming pirates.
Ali Abdullah, 21, was previously a soldier; Arai Mohamed, 23, a fisherman; Serum Abdullah, 21, a cook; Ali Abukad-Aeman, 21, a soldier; and Brallat Aul, 19, a student, according to investigators.
Officials also said that medical checkups have shown that two of the five sustained injuries during the commando raid, with Serum Abdullah receiving a stray bullet to the shoulder and Arai Mohamed sustaining scratches in his left wrist.
Officials said they would continue the investigation because the injuries are not considered serious enough to suspend questioning. But they said they would try to have the injured pirates receive surgery or other medial treatment on humanitarian grounds.
Captain Seok remained in serious but stable condition after receiving a third round of surgery on Sunday, according to officials at Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, south of Seoul. Seok received surgery twice in Oman before being airlifted to South Korea.
"Though 36 hours have passed since the operation, there have been no changes in the symptoms of blood poisoning and DIC," Ryu Hee-sug, head of the hospital, said during a press briefing. DIC stands for disseminated intravascular coagulation, a pathological activation of blood-clotting mechanisms that happens in response to a variety of diseases.
Seok, who is isolated in a glass-walled room in the hospital's intensive care unit, is also showing slight symptoms of pulmonary edema, which refers to fluid accumulation in the lungs, as well as pleural effusion, which refers to excess fluid accumulating in the pleura, Ryu said.
"It's still a risky period and it's too early for us to feel at ease," he said.
Seok's blood pressure, pulse and temperature are slowly returning to normal, but it could be at least two to three weeks before Seok recovers enough to be fit for another surgery, the doctor said.
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