WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Eleven suspected pirates from Somalia have been brought to the United States to face piracy and other charges for attacks on two U.S. Navy ships off the coast of Africa, the Justice Department said on Friday.
It said the suspects were scheduled to appear on Friday in federal court in Norfolk, Virginia. The 11 men had been held on U.S. ships for weeks off Somalia’s coast as U.S. officials decided what to do with them.
Five defendants were captured after the March 31 attack in which the Navy frigate, the USS Nicholas, exchanged fire with a suspected pirate vessel in the Indian Ocean west of the Seychelles, sinking a skiff and confiscating its mother ship.
Two of the accused pirates opened fire at night on what they believed to be a merchant ship, but it actually was the Navy vessel, according to U.S. court documents filed in the case.
In the other incident, six defendants were charged with the April 10 attack on another Navy vessel, the USS Ashland, in the Gulf of Aden. They allegedly opened fire on the vessel with small arms from their boat.
In addition to piracy, the criminal charges included attacks to plunder a vessel, assault with a dangerous weapon, and use of a firearm during a crime of violence.
If convicted of piracy, the suspects face a mandatory sentence of life in prison, a Justice Department spokesman said.
It was not the first time an accused Somali pirate has been sent to the United States to face criminal charges.
Last year, a teenager from Somalia was extradited to New York to face charges he attempted to hijack a U.S. ship in the Indian Ocean.
Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, the sole surviving accused pirate from the foiled bid to hijack U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama in April 2009, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have stepped up hijacking attacks on vessels in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden in recent months, making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms by seizing ships, including tankers, despite the presence of dozens of foreign naval vessels.
On any given day, between 30 and 40 international ships are involved in anti-piracy efforts in the Somali basin and the western Indian Ocean. That includes five to 10 American vessels, a top U.S. Navy admiral has said.
Editing by David Alexander and Stacey Joyce