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Wounded captain of rescued S. Korean freighter heads home

The seriously wounded captain of a rescued South Korean freighter headed home from Oman aboard a special ambulance jet on Saturday, about a week after he survived shooting from Somali pirates in a commando operation to free the vessel.

The 58-year-old Seok Hae-kyun was shot three times by pirates during the Jan. 21 operation in which South Korean commandos rescued the freighter Samho Jewelry. He was the only one wounded among the 21 crew members of the 11,500-ton chemical carrier that was seized by Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea on Jan. 15.

Seok underwent two rounds of surgery at a hospital in Salalah, Oman, to remove bullets and attach leg bones that had been fractured by gunshots. He had been taken to an intensive care unit for recovery.

South Korea sent a special plane and a medical team to Salalah to airlift home the captain, who remains unconscious, and checked if his medical condition was fit for a long flight.

On Saturday, the ambulance jet carrying Seok took off from the airport in Salalah at 11:37 a.m. (Korean time), officials in Seoul said. The departure was delayed by a few hours as more time was needed to make sure the plane had the right equipment and medicines, they said.

Two doctors and a nurse were taking care of Seok during the flight.

The plane is expected to land at a military airport south of Seoul at around 10 p.m. (Korean time) after 10 to 11 hours of flying, officials said. The jet is scheduled to make a fueling stop at a Thai airport en route to South Korea.

Seok will then be sent to Ajou University Hospital, south Seoul, for further treatment.

Doctors said the decision to take Seok home does not mean that his condition has deteriorated.

"Treatment of patients with serious wounds like Seok cannot be completed with a round of surgery," said Lee Kook-jong, an Ajou University Hospital doctor heading the medical team. "We decided to bring him to South Korea because he should be treated under a long-term plan."

In South Korea, Ajou University Hospital officials stepped up preparations to receive Seok. Officials said he will undergo a series of examinations upon arrival at the hospital. The hospital put surgeons, orthopedic doctors and neurosurgeons on standby for possible operations.

"We have prepared beds for him at the emergency room and the intensive care unit," an official at the hospital said. "We are also restricting ordinary people from accessing the hallway through which Captain Seok will be coming."

The captain is credited with helping the rescue operation go successfully. Officials said the captain stalled for time by steering the ship in a zigzag after armed pirates ordered that the vessel move toward the Somali coast.

During the rescue operation, the commandos killed eight pirates and captured five, while rescuing all 21 crew members of the Samho Jewelry. None of the crew members were seriously injured, other than the captain.

According to a government source in Seoul, the five captive Somali pirates, now detained in an isolated room of the South Korean destroyer Choi Young, will be brought to South Korea on Sunday via a royal jet of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

South Korea had once considered sending a military plane to airlift the pirates but finally gave up the plan due to problems with passage through foreign countries' airspace.

Three South Korean commandos were slightly wounded during a brief gun battle three days before the rescue operation. Two of them arrived in South Korea on Friday and were taken to a military hospital, officials said.