NAPLES, Italy — European Union Naval Force officials released nine suspected pirates Thursday because of insufficient criminal evidence after destroying their skiff off Somalia, said spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Jacqueline Sherriff.
Maritime officials from four countries collaborated Wednesday morning to identify and destroy the suspected pirate boat about 420 nautical miles east of Mogadishu, Somalia’s largest city and capital.
But the coalition’s legal advisers quickly determined that building a legal case against the suspects would be too time-consuming and onerous, and the nine Somali men onboard the skiff were released Thursday night onto a Somali beach, Sherriff said.
The men did not have fishing gear on the skiff, which had previously been seen along the Somali shore in a known pirate area, Sherriff said.
“Without their boat, without their fuel, without their ladders, what they are going to have to do now is start over. It’s going to cost them money, so we have made it very difficult for them,” Sherriff said.
A Swedish patrol aircraft reported a “suspicious” skiff Wednesday morning. The Romanian frigate ROS Regele Ferdinand and the Turkish warship TCG Gemlik approached the skiff as a Luxembourg patrol aircraft kept watch. The suspected pirates tried to evade capture for more than an hour.
“They were basically trying to outrun, rather foolishly, the helicopter,” Sherriff said.
A Turkish boarding team eventually searched the skiff. The suspected pirates were then questioned and detained aboard the Romanian frigate. If the coalition had opted to move forward with prosecution, the men would have been sent to Romania, Sherriff said.
“The likelihood of prosecution was difficult,” Sherriff said, adding that the suspects were not caught committing a crime.
The vessel was sunk to prevent it from being used in future pirate attacks.
“My message to the pirates is clear — we are watching you and we plan to capture you if you put to sea,” Rear Adm. Duncan Potts, the force’s operation commander, said in a statement Wednesday.
The incident marked the coalition’s third run-in with suspected pirates since October after a three-month lull in reported piracy attacks during the dangerous summer monsoon season.
The ITS San Giusto, the coalition’s flagship, searched and then destroyed a skiff with seven suspected pirates onboard on Oct. 10.
EU forces apprehended seven suspected pirates onboard a fishing vessel near Somalia on Oct. 20. The men were released after prosecution was ruled out, Sherriff said.
The EU Naval Force has arrested 128 pirates since the anti-piracy operation began in late 2008. Of those, 75 were prosecuted. In that time, the estimated success rate for pirate attacks near Somalia has dropped from 28 percent in 2009 to 15 percent in 2012, according to the coalition.