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US admiral says pact near for Somali pirate trials

CAPTURED Somali pirates could soon face trials and serve jail sentences outside their homeland under a pact being negotiated between American officials and regional allies, the head of a new US anti-piracy task force said today.

The lack of an international framework to bring pirates to justice is among the many frustrations for naval forces struggling to curb rising attacks on merchant vessels off lawless Somalia, where pirates launched more than 100 assaults on ships last year and took away millions of dollars in ransom.

Rear Adm. Terence McKnight said an accord could be reached within weeks to clear the way for piracy trials and imprisonment in countries "in the region." He declined, however, to name the nations possibly willing to hold the trials.

"We're working with a couple of countries that have helped ... out before," McKnight said in a telephone interview from the USS San Antonio, which began anti-piracy patrols last week along with another US warship.

In November, a Kenyan court gave seven-year prison sentences to each of 10 Somali pirates captured by the US Navy after hijacking an Indian-based merchant ship. Last week, eight suspected pirates detained by a British warship also went before a Kenyan court in Mombasa.

India has handed over 11 suspected Somali pirates to Yemen. France and Denmark are among European nations that appear willing to hold their own piracy trials - which are impossible in Somalia. The Horn of Africa country has been without a functioning government for nearly two decades.

Pirates last year staged a series of increasingly bold ambushes with some startling successes, including commandeering a Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying more than 30 battle tanks. The tanker was released earlier this month after the payment of a reported US$3 million ransom.

Naval forces from the around the world have responded with warships and surveillance vessels throughout the Gulf of Aden and nearby waters that mark one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. An estimated 20,000 merchant ships use the route the links Asian ports to the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal.

More than a dozen nations - including Britain, France, China and Russia - have deployed ships to the region to combat pirates. The warships coordinate with the new US Navy task force, said McKnight, but are not directly under his command.

"The coalition involvement has been huge," he said, noting that pirate attacks have fallen sharply since early January.

Rough seas in recent weeks could force the small pirate ships to remain ashore. But McKnight said new tactics are being used to foil attacks, including asking captains to steam at full speed through the main pirate zone and avoid nighttime travel.

Also, a tighter shipping corridor has been established through the Gulf of Aden to allow naval ships to patrol the edges.

"It's like herding cattle," said McKnight.


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