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Russia says pirates who held oil tanker off the coast of Somalia have been released

MOSCOW (AP) — The pirates seized by a Russian warship off the coast of Somalia have been released because of "imperfections" in international law, the Defense Ministry said Friday, a claim that sparked skepticism — and even suspicion the pirates might have been killed.

Authorities initially said the pirates would be brought to Russia to face criminal charges for hijacking a Russian oil tanker. But Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Alexei Kuznetsov told The Associated Press on Friday that the pirates had been released.

Kuznetsov declined to elaborate on the purported legal flaws that prompted the release and it was unclear how the seizure of the tanker might be legally different from last year's alleged hijacking of the Russian-crewed freighter Arctic Sea.

That vessel allegedly was seized by pirates in the Baltic Sea off Sweden and went missing for several days before a Russian warship tracked it down off West Africa. The eight alleged pirates were flown to Moscow to face eventual trial.

The Law of the Seas Convention, to which Russia is a signatory, says the courts of a country that seizes a pirated vessel on the high seas have the right to decide what penalties will be imposed.

But what to do with pirates has become a murky problem. Some countries are wary of hauling in pirates for trial for fear of being saddled with them after they serve prison terms, and some propose that pirates taken to Kenya for trial.

Kuznetsov appeared to echo those concerns when asked why the pirates who seized the tanker were released.

"Why should we feed some pirates?" he asked. He did not give specifics of the pirates' release, but the official news agency ITAR-Tass quoted a ministry source as saying they were "sent home," unarmed and without navigational devices, in the small boats they had used to approach the tanker.

Their home, presumably, was Somalia, a chaotic and lawless country where pirates are almost certain to avoid any formal prosecution.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had hinted Thursday at tough punishment for the pirates, saying "perhaps we should get back to the idea of establishing an international court and other legal tools" to prosecute pirates. "Until then, we'll have to do what our forefathers did when they met the pirates," he said.

Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Russian online Marine Bulletin, said the release strained credulity and instead sparked suspicion the pirates had all been killed

"There is no more stupid version than the one that has been proposed to us — that there was no sense in dealing with the pirates and that in Russia there are no suitable laws for convicting them," he wrote.

"If the pirates really were let go, it should have been done in the presence of journalists. If the pirates were killed, a heroic version would have to be thought up," Voitenko said.

The pirates boarded the tanker Moscow University on Wednesday. They were arrested Thursday after special forces from a Russian warship stormed the tanker. A gunbattle ensued in which one pirate was killed; 10 others were arrested.

The warship opened with warning fire from large-caliber machine guns and a 30mm artillery complex, the Russian Defense Ministry said. Special forces troops then rappelled down to the tanker from a helicopter, Rear Adm. Jan Thornqvist, the European Union Naval Force commander, told an Associated Press reporter aboard the Swedish warship Carlskrona, which was patrolling 500 miles (800 kilometers) west of the rescue site.

The tanker's 23 crew members, who had taken refuge in a safe room, were not injured.

Suspected pirates from other cases are in custody and awaiting trial in France, the Netherlands and the United States.

Several countries are calling for piracy cases to be prosecuted in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. The United States, Britain and European Union have signed agreements allowing piracy suspects to be handed over to Kenya for trial.

But there are doubts that Kenya — which is still recovering from postelection turmoil in 2007 that left more than 1,000 people dead — would be able to handle the costly and complicated task of trying all or even most cases that emerge from the exploding piracy crisis in the Indian Ocean.

Some countries reportedly have dumped detained pirates back into lawless Somalia.