- Associated Press - Sunday, January 30, 2011

 

SEOUL (AP) — Five Somali pirates captured during a raid on a hijacked cargo ship in the Arabian Sea were brought Sunday to South Korea, where they could face up to life imprisonment, the coast guard said.

The men were arrested as South Korean commandos raided the South Korean-operated Samho Jewelry earlier this month, a week after pirates seized the freighter and its 21 crew members. The commandos rescued all crew members — eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 Myanmar citizens — and killed eight Somali pirates.

None of the crew members was injured except for the South Korean captain, who was shot in the stomach by a pirate. The captain, Seok Hae-gyun, was brought to South Korea on Saturday night and had surgery for his wounds.

On Sunday, the five captured pirates arrived at Gimhae International Airport in southeastern South Korea and later were put into detention there.

Coast guard investigators subsequently began questioning the Somalis on charges that they hijacked the ship, requested a ransom and attempted to kill the captain, coast guard officer Hahm Un-sik said. By South Korean law, the pirates — if convicted — could be sentenced to life in prison as a maximum penalty, he said.

The suspects told investigators that the dead eight pirates played a key role in the hijacking and shot the captain, according to Yonhap news agency. The coast guard couldn’t immediately confirm the report but said that it will quiz the pirates for 10 days before handing them over to South Korean prosecutors for an indictment.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia — which includes one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes — has flourished since the Horn of Africa nation’s government collapsed in 1991.

The United States, Germany and the Netherlands have tried other Somali pirate suspects, but efforts to involve Africa in trying piracy cases are faltering and captured pirates frequently are released. In November, a judge in Kenya said that country did not have jurisdiction for attacks outside its waters.

South Korea’s coast guard says a trial in South Korea has no legal hurdles. A U.N. convention says every country has rights to arrest pirates in international waters, and South Korea’s criminal code stipulates that local authorities can punish foreigners who commit crimes against South Koreans even outside its territory, coast guard officer Eum Jin-kyung said.

The names, ages and other personal details of the pirate suspects weren’t immediately available. The Somalis — wearing hooded black winter jackets and with their hands bounded with knotted ropes — were seen entering a South Korean coast guard office for an investigation amid heavy security, footage by YTN television network showed.

The Samho Jewelry and the freed crew members were headed to Oman following their release. Oman, however, reportedly has been delaying their port entry citing the dead bodies of the pirates on board. Yonhap, citing an unidentified Seoul official, reported Sunday that South Korea is considering burying the bodies at sea to quicken the port entry.

Part of the investigation also will focus on finding whether the pirates belong to a group involved in the previous hijackings of South Korean ships, senior coast guard officer Kim Chung-gyu told a news conference.

In October, Somali pirates hijacked a South Korean-operated fishing boat with 43 sailors — two South Korean, two Chinese and 39 Kenyans — but they haven’t been released yet. A month later, a supertanker also owned by Samho Shipping and its 24 crew were freed after seven months amid reports that a record ransom of up to $9.5 million had been paid to Somali pirates.

The South Korean raid happened the same day that Malaysia’s navy successfully freed a chemical tanker and its 23 crew members from Somali pirates while apprehending seven pirates.