09 September, 2009

Somali govt detains hostages freed by pirates

Somali govt detains hostages freed by pirates

MOGADISHU, Somalia — A deal to swap three hostages held by Somali pirates with 23 prisoners accused of piracy was halted by Somali authorities who say they were not informed of the plan, officials said Monday.

It appeared to be the first attempt to exchange hostages for prisoners in Somalia's multimillion-dollar pirate industry. Hostages are usually only released after a ransom payment.

The 23 suspected Somali pirates had been held in the Seychelles after being detained by international warships on anti-piracy missions. On Monday, the Seychelles government issued a statement saying the suspects were released because the government lacks evidence needed to prosecute them.

"We do not have sufficient evidence for a trial to take place, and based on that we have respected international laws and repatriated them to their homeland," said Minister Joel Morgan, who was mandated by Seychelles' president to work on the country's piracy portfolio. The Seychelles is an island nation located southeast of Somalia's coastline.

But Somali authorities say the 23 were released and flown to Somalia aboard two private planes as part of a deal to free three sailors from the Seychelles who had been held since their yacht was seized in February. The yacht later sank in bad weather.

The governor of Somalia's Mudug region, Ahmed Ali Salad, said the planes' crews misinformed authorities about the nature of their mission, claiming they were carrying humanitarian supplies.

Ahmed Elmi Karash, the aviation minister in Somalia's semiautonomous northern region of Puntland, said the 23 suspects disembarked from the two planes there late Sunday and that the three former hostages boarded the planes, which were then detained by Somali officials while refueling. The seven crew members flying the two planes also were held.

Pirates captured more than 100 ships last year, and attacks off Somalia's pirate-infested coastline are expected to increase dramatically in coming months as the monsoon season ends.

The plague of pirates has attracted warships from nations as diverse as Japan, America, Germany and Portugal. When the warships capture suspected pirates, the prisoners are often delivered to nearby Kenya or the Seychelles for trial.

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