Kenya charged 17 Somali men with piracy on Thursday, a day after the U.S. Navy handed them over to authorities in this East African nation.
Kenya is holding more than 100 piracy suspects from neighboring Somalia, a country in tatters and with no functioning government or legal system after two decades of anarchy.
The suspects denied the charge and requested lawyers.
The prosecutor's charge sheet says the men were arrested May 13 off the Gulf of Aden with weapons including seven AK-47 rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade.
Despite international patrols, piracy has exploded in the Gulf of Aden and around Somalia's 1,900-mile coastline — the longest in Africa.
Pirates are able to operate freely because Somalia has had no effective central government in nearly 20 years. Nearly every public institution has crumbled, and the weak, U.N.-backed government is fighting an Islamic insurgency.
Concerns about armed guards
While there have been calls for companies to place armed guards on vessels, most experts believe that would only escalate conflict and spark firefights.
The international community is grappling with how and where to try captured pirates. The United States, Britain and European Union have now signed agreements allowing for piracy suspects to be handed over to Kenya for trial.
Many nations are wary of hauling in pirates for trial for fear of being saddled with them after they serve out prison terms. There is talk of setting up a special piracy tribunal there akin to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
There are doubts that Kenya — which is still recovering from post-election 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.
Mired in anarchy and chaos
Somalia has been mired in anarchy and chaos since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
A surge of violence in Somalia's capital since last month has killed about 200 people as insurgents battle the government and its allies. Insurgents want to topple the Western-backed government and install a strict Islamic state.
Fighting has killed thousands of civilians and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives in recent years. Observers say the Somali insurgents have been boosted this year by up to 400 foreign fighters who are believed to have come from as far away as Afghanistan.
Experts have expressed fears that the foreign Islamic militants could use Somalia as a base for terror.
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