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Captured pirates who seized Russian tanker are freed

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has released pirates who hijacked an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden because there are no legal grounds to prosecute them in Moscow, a Defense Ministry official said on Friday.

A Moscow University oil tanker is seen at Kozmino port in the bay of Kozmino, about 100 km (62 miles) east of Russia's city of Vladivostok in this December 28, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev/Files

The decision reverses a plan to bring 10 alleged pirates to Russia to face prosecution for the seizure on Wednesday of the Russian-owned MV Moscow University, which was headed to China with a crew of 23 and a crude oil cargo worth $52 million.

The tanker was freed and its captors detained after they surrendered on Thursday following a gunbattle with forces aboard a Russian warship that killed one pirate, according to Russian authorities.

“In the absence of necessary legal agreements, it was impossible to bring these pirates to justice,” a senior Russian Defense Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters by telephone.

“A decision was adopted to set them free aboard one of the small vessels they themselves had used to attack the Moscow University tanker,” the official said, adding that the ministry had been unable to establish the pirates’ citizenship.

Earlier, Russian investigators said they were Somali and that they would be brought to Moscow for prosecution.

The international community has become increasingly frustrated with the murky legal arena surrounding piracy.

Somalia lacks the legal infrastructure to support trials, and captured pirates are often released because of disagreements over which country should try them.

Last month the U.N. Security Council, on Russia’s initiative, suggested creating special piracy courts to plug a gap in the world response to the costly attacks on merchant ships off the lawless Somali coast.

“It is necessary to look for ways to try pirates with the help of international judicial mechanisms,” the Interfax news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov as saying on Friday.

In televised comments, Lyakin-Frolov said preliminary information indicated the tanker suffered some damage but there was no threat of an oil leak. He said it would probably put in at Fujeirah or Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for repairs.

Thursday’s successful helicopter-backed rescue operation launched from the warship Marshal Shaposhnikov was celebrated by the Kremlin, which has been seeking to revive Russia’s naval muscle far from its shores despite limited resources.

The hijacking of ships near the coast of Somalia, where an Islamist insurgency and general lawlessness have created a safe haven for pirates, has cost the shipping industry tens of millions of dollars in ransoms for vessels and their crews.

Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov, writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Charles Dick