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Malaysian police take custody of 7 Somali pirates

Police in Malaysia took custody Monday of seven Somali pirates who were captured in the Gulf of Aden and brought to the Southeast Asian country to face a possible trial for hijacking a Malaysian-operated chemical tanker.

Separately, relatives of a South African couple believed kidnapped by Somali pirates last year said they received a call demanding $10 million in ransom.

Malaysia and South Korea could become Asia's first countries to charge Somalis for piracy-related offenses after detaining a total of 12 suspects in separate raids on two hijacked ships recently. Five Somalis captured in the Arabian Sea were brought Sunday to South Korea, where they could be sentenced to life imprisonment.

The seven other Somalis arrived under tight security at Malaysia's key western harbor Monday aboard the MT Bunga Laurel, which they attacked Jan. 20 in the Gulf of Aden. Malaysian naval commandos stormed the ship and rescued 23 Filipino crew members less than two hours after the pirates boarded it.

The Somalis were taken to a magistrate's court, where police obtained approval to hold them for seven days. Wearing orange overalls and flip-flops, they were handcuffed behind their backs and then transported by bus to the national police headquarters for their detention. Most of them appeared to be in their 20s and looked tired and thin.

Authorities will interrogate the Somalis in a "thorough investigation" before deciding what charges they could face, a federal police official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements.

Malaysia's plan to charge them could be complicated because the vessel attacked was Panama-registered, even though it was chartered and operated by a Malaysian shipping firm. None of the crew was Malaysian, and the ship's cargo was being transported to Singapore.

But officials have said the pirates could still face unspecified charges because the ship had Malaysian interests.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia — which includes one of the world's busiest shipping lanes — has flourished since the Horn of Africa nation's government collapsed in 1991.

The United States, Germany and the Netherlands have tried other Somali pirate suspects, but efforts to involve Africa in trying piracy cases are faltering and captured pirates frequently are released.

The Somalis apprehended by South Korea are being questioned on charges they hijacked a ship, requested a ransom and attempted to kill the captain. Under South Korean law, they face up to life in prison if convicted.

The five were arrested as South Korean commandos raided the South Korean-operated Samho Jewelry on Jan. 21, a week after pirates seized the freighter and its 21 crew members. The commandos rescued all crew members — eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 Myanmar citizens — and killed eight Somalis.

Also Monday, the family of a South African couple kidnapped by Somali pirates said they were worried about their well-being.

Deborah Calitz and Bruno Pelizzari were captured late last year from a yacht off the coast of Tanzania. Relatives were first contacted on a mobile phone in early January and several times since by a man speaking broken English who claimed to be holding the two, Calitz's brother told reporters Monday.

The brother, Dale van der Merwe, said the man demanded $10 million, which he said the family cannot pay. The family spoke to reporters at South Africa's foreign ministry.

Ministry officials said South Africa does not pay ransoms, had not been contacted by anyone claiming to have taken the couple, and could not determine whether the calls to the relatives were legitimate.

Somalia has been a failed state for nearly 20 years. Somali pirates have taken advantage of the chaos. Ransoms are usually split between financiers, negotiators, local militias, and the gunmen who go out to sea in tiny skiffs and guard the captive ships.

An international flotilla of warships patrols waters threatened by Somali pirates. South Africa, with one of Africa's strongest navies, has been asked to join the patrols, but has not yet committed to do so.

The pirates are venturing closer to South Africa. They tried to capture two ships in separate attacks in the Mozambique Channel in December — the farthest south they have ever attempted a hijacking.

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Associated Press writer Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS that relatives did not say they spoke to the couple, and that they say they are worried about couple's well-being.)