MOMBASSA, Kenya – Masked French commandos marched a band of barefoot, glum-looking pirate suspects down the gangplank of a naval frigate Wednesday in the Kenyan port of Mombassa before turning the 11 Somalis over to Kenyan authorities.
French officials say the suspects will be tried for their alleged attack on the Liberian cargo ship Safmarine Asia last week.
The three French commandos, who may have been part of the pre-dawn raid that captured the pirates on April 14, wore black balaclavas to conceal their identities. The pirates, who did not smile or speak to gathered reporters as they left the Nivose, appeared to range from in age from about 20 to 40. Few wore shoes. They were not handcuffed or shackled. The men were rushed from the ship into a waiting Kenyan police van.
Kenyan officials received the men and took the pirates' equipment: two skiffs, three grappling hooks, four rusty assault rifles, two bags of bullets and a ladder.
The French frigate Nivose is serving in the international fleet trying to protect the 20,000 ships that pass through the vital Gulf of Aden trade route every year.
The ship pulled into dock at 9 a.m. and anchored next to the German frigate Rheinland-Pfalz, which earlier this month handed over to Kenya seven men they captured after they attacked a German naval supply ship off the Somali coast.
The captain of the Nivose, Jean Marc LeQuilliec, said sailors pursued the pirates in a dramatic nighttime chase and caught them in the early raid.
"They were preparing breakfast but they were not prepared for such an attack," he said.
France has traditionally been aggressive in fighting piracy. This was its ninth military operation against suspected pirates. Those who have attacked French citizens are taken to France for trial. Others are taken to court in Mombassa under an agreement between Kenya and the European Union.
Antti Lehmusjarvi, the legal adviser to the EU's anti-piracy force, said he thought the trials would go smoothly.
"I met the Kenyan prosecutor yesterday and he was quite happy with the amount of evidence and technical support we have prepared in the last two cases," he said, referring to other pirates who had been turned in for trial in Kenya.
An international maritime watchdog reported Tuesday that attacks by sea worldwide nearly doubled in the first three months of 2009, mainly because of increased pirate raids on vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the east coast of Somalia.
Somalia's nearly 20 years of lawlessness has fueled piracy's rise. Attacks have risen markedly in recent weeks, including one Monday when pirates fired rockets at a Maltese-flagged ship off Yemen's coast.
In New York, the sole survivor of a pirate attack on an American cargo ship wept in a courtroom Tuesday as a dispute broke out over whether he was a juvenile or an adult, an issue that will determine whether his case will be open to the public.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Peck, over the objection of reporters crowded into a small courtroom, ordered the hearing closed to the public. The hearing will decide whether Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, whose age has been variously reported to be between 15 and 18, is a juvenile or adult.
Before court officers closed the courtroom to the media, Muse was asked if he understood that two federal defenders were being assigned to his case because he reported having no financial resources. Muse said through an interpreter: "I understand. I don't have any money."
He arrived in New York on Monday evening, handcuffed with a chain wrapped around his waist and about a dozen federal agents surrounding him.
His left hand is heavily bandaged from the wound he suffered during the skirmish on the cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. Muse, his 5 foot-2 inch frame so slight that his prison clothes draped loosely, at one point put his head in his uninjured hand.