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WASHINGTON — At least five pirate suspects are being brought to the United States for prosecution, a federal law enforcement official said Tuesday.
The suspects will arrive in the United States by the end of the week, the official told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the transfer is still under way.
U.S. officials had said last week that about 20 suspected pirates held on U.S. ships off the coast of Somalia might soon be headed to the U.S. for prosecution.
A senior U.S. official said Tuesday that five alleged pirates en route to the U.S. were captured March 31, after the frigate USS Nicholas exchanged fire with a suspected pirate vessel west of the Seychelles, sinking their skiff and confiscating a mother ship.
It was not clear whether the rest of the suspected pirates in custody will now be released or sent somewhere for prosecution, said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because decisions have not been made.
Of those others in custody, six were captured after they allegedly began shooting at the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland about 380 miles off Djibouti, a small nation facing Yemen across the mouth of the Red Sea.
As many as 10 other suspected pirates were captured when the destroyer USS McFaul responded to the distress call from a merchant vessel.
Military officials said there are concerns that if the six suspects who fired on the USS Ashland are not brought to trial, it could send out a message to other pirates that those who attack a U.S. Navy ship can escape without prosecution.
The government's decision to bring the suspected pirates to the United States comes amid heated debate among U.S. and other international agencies over where piracy suspects should be sent for trial. Earlier this month Kenya began refusing to take piracy suspects, saying the trials were straining its courts.
Senior officials from several U.S. agencies met last week at the White House to discuss the issue.
One piracy suspect has already gone to court in New York City in connection with the attack against an American cargo ship early last year.
Under U.S. policy, if the Navy captures suspects accused of hijacking an American ship, they are brought to the United States for trial. Those accused of attacking another country's ship are supposed to be tried by that country or, until this month, in Kenya.
The piracy prosecutions are part of a larger U.S. policy debate over how best to deal with the insurgents and criminal activities that contribute to the persistent instability in Somalia, making it a safe haven for al-Qaida-linked terrorists.
There have been preliminary discussions about setting up a special international court to try piracy suspects, because a number of countries will not take action against suspected pirates who are turned over to them. Officials said, however, that those talks are in the very early stages.