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Officials: FBI launches criminal piracy probe

FBI agents are investigating the Somali pirates who hijacked a US ship and are holding its captain hostage, US officials said on Saturday, raising the possibility of federal charges against the men if they are captured.

world Updated: Apr 12, 2009 01:07 IST

FBI agents are investigating the Somali pirates who hijacked a US ship and are holding its captain hostage, US officials said on Saturday, raising the possibility of federal charges against the men if they are captured.

Even as Navy warships were in a standoff with the pirates floating in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean, FBI agents from New York were investigating how the hijacking unfolded, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

Attorney General Eric Holder said this past week that the Justice Department had not seen a case of piracy against a US ship in hundreds of years. But authorities have prepared for such an event as the threat of piracy along the African coast has risen.

“If there were ever a US victim of one of these attacks or a US shipping line that were a victim, our Justice Department has said that it would favorably consider prosecuting such apprehended pirates,” Stephen Mull, the acting undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, told Congress last month.

Somali pirates boarded and briefly took control of a US cargo ship. The crew thwarted the hijackers, however, and the pirates fled to a lifeboat with Capt. Richard Phillips as hostage.

Under US law, crimes aboard US ships or against US citizens can be prosecuted in US courts, even when they occur in international waters.

The FBI investigation is being run out of New York because the office there oversees cases involving US citizens in Africa. Other field offices take the lead depending on where in the world the crime occurs.

The FBI has a legal attache at the US Embassy in Kenya and has agents elsewhere in Africa to assist the investigation.

Whether charges ever get filed depends on how the standoff plays out. If the pirates are captured at sea, it will be much easier for US authorities to prosecute.

The pirates have summoned reinforcements and are trying to make it back, with their hostage, to lawless Somalia. That would make it harder for authorities to stage a rescue attempt and would make the FBI’s case murkier because the US does not have an extradition treaty with Somalia.