Three sailors from the Seychelles held by Somali pirates for seven months were freed, only to be arrested by authorities in Puntland and accused of being part of an illegal prisoner swap.
Puntland, the semi-autonomous north of Somalia, said it detained the sailors, five Kenyans, an Australian and a Briton when their two planes landed at an airport to refuel before leaving the country.
Puntland said the aircraft had earlier landed at an airstrip near a pirate haven elsewhere in the region. It said 23 suspected pirates had been handed over to other gunmen and friends and the three sailors had been taken away in exchange.
“These persons, who were involved in pirate smuggling and ransom transfer, had no legal clearance to land in Puntland and are now under criminal investigation,” the Puntland government said in a statement yesterday.
Seychelles said it had released and repatriated 23 Somalis arrested in its waters on suspicion of piracy because it did not have sufficient evidence to bring them to trial.
The government denied it had paid any ransom for its freed sailors, or that there had been a prisoner exchange. It said using the same aircraft for both operations made sense.
“We are not in the business of human trafficking or making exchanges. This was the most cost-effective option. We have had to pick up most of the costs of repatriating the 23 Somalis,” said Joel Morgan, minister for the environment, natural resources and transport.
“We believe we have followed all the correct procedures to repatriate our three citizens who have been held against their will and international law for the last seven months,” Morgan, who heads the Seychelles anti-piracy task force, told Reuters.
May face trial
Piracy is still rampant off the Horn of Africa, with sea gangs defying the foreign navies patrolling the strategic shipping lanes linking Asia with Europe.
Puntland is used as a base by many of the pirates despite pledges by the authorities to crack down on the gangs.
Pirate attacks worldwide more than doubled to 240 during the first half of 2009, driven by a surge in hijackings in the waters off the Horn of Africa, according to an International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre report in July.
Maritime security groups warned in May of a surge in the number of pirate “mother ships” operating in the Seychelles archipelago’s expansive territorial waters.
Two vessels flying the Indian Ocean nation’s flag have been hijacked this year, while an Italian cruise ship fended off an assault in April in Seychelles’ waters.
Puntland said the 10 people arrested would be brought before a court once the police investigation had been completed.
“Puntland government remains unwavering in its opposition to ransom payments and its commitment in the fight against piracy,” its statement said.
Seychelles said the return flight was experiencing delays in Puntland, but that the government was in contact with the authorities there and the holdup was expected to be resolved.
Pic: Somali pirates