French navy hands over suspected pirates to Somalia
BOSSASO, Somalia (Reuters) - French navy officers handed over 22 suspected Somali pirates to semi-autonomous Puntland's authorities and they will be arraigned in local courts, officials said on Saturday.
Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden since the start of 2009, operating convoys, establishing safer corridors through the most dangerous waters and arresting pirates and seizing their vessels.
"The French navy handed over these pirates, two skiff boats and video evidence showing the kind of weapons they were carrying," Mohamed Sicid Jaqanaf, Puntland's deputy police commissioner, told a news conference at the Bossaso port while receiving the suspects.
"This video shows their intention was not fishing...or other civilian work. They (the French) threw the confiscated weapons and ammunition into the ocean. The pirates will be taken to court soon."
Jaqanaf did not specify what weapons the pirates had.
The French frigate spotted and seized the suspected pirates 85 miles off the Mogadishu coast last week.
"There are two underage boys, whom the French said they were not sure what activities they were engaged in. They were arrested on a separate boat, and we will investigate further," Jaqanaf said.
International navies trying to stamp out piracy off Somalia often are reluctant to take suspects to their own countries because they either lack the jurisdiction to put them on trial there, or they fear the pirates may seek asylum.
Emboldened by higher ransom payments, Somali sea gangs have increased attacks in recent months, making tens of millions of dollars by capturing vessels plying the Indian Ocean and the busy Gulf of Aden shipping lanes connecting Europe and Asia.
The pirates said they were innocent and were arrested while casting their fishing nets into the ocean.
"We are fishermen, and have no idea why we have been arrested," one suspect, Abdulahi Ahmed, told Reuters.
Ahmed said the French were holding 11 of their colleagues aboard their frigate. Some of the 22 suspects were seen being frogmarched onto land.
The Puntland government says that to date it has convicted 154 people for involvement in piracy and they were serving long prison terms. Those taken into custody on Saturday brings the number awaiting trial to 72.
Pirates have widened the range within which they operate from the Somali coastline, and have been known to seize vessels as far away as the Seychelles.
Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers Assistance Program said that on Thursday pirates unsuccessfully tried to hijack a German cargo ship, MV Luebeck, 450 miles northeast of Seychelles while it was on its way to Salalah in Oman.
There were no injuries, Mwangura said.
(Writing by Abdiaziz Hassan; Editing by George Obulutsa and Michael Roddy)