Five alleged Somali pirates arrived in South Korea on Sunday to face trial in the recent foiled hijacking of a cargo ship, charges that could bring them life in prison, officials here say.
Wearing hooded coats against the winter cold, a world away from the equatorial heat of the Arabian Sea, the heavily guarded men said little as they disembarked from a plane in the southern port city of Busan.
Authorities alleged that the five were among 13 pirates who this month seized the South Korean chemical freighter Samho Jewelry and kidnapped its crew of eight South Koreans, two Indonesians and 11 citizens of Myanmar.
Eight pirates were killed a week later when South Korean navy commandos stormed the ship in a predawn raid in which three commandos were wounded. The ship's captain, Seok Hae-gyun, was critically wounded after being shot several times in the stomach. He arrived in South Korea on Saturday for continued surgery.
Investigators have interrogated the five detainees about the kidnapping, which involved a ransom demand in exchange for the return of the crew. The charges include maritime robbery and attempted murder. If convicted, the men could be sentenced to life in prison under South Korean law.
South Korean coast guard officers are trying to determine whether the five Somalis are part of a ring that has vexed South Korean-operated vessels, including one kidnapping in which the crew of 24 was released only after $9.5 million was reportedly paid to the pirates. In another hijacking in October, the crew of 43 is still being held.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has heralded the successful retaking of the Samho Jewelry as exemplifying the nation's get-tough stand on pirates, who are often difficult to prosecute in Africa because many countries there refuse to take jurisdiction over offshore crimes.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991. In recent years armed residents have taken to the sea in small boats to attack ships along one of the planet's busiest shipping lanes.
The five Somalis, 19 to 25 years old, are the first piracy suspects from outside South Korean waters to be brought to the Asian nation to face charges of hijacking a South Korean ship.
"The reasons for requesting the arrest warrants have been explained, and there is a risk of flight," said Judge Kim Ju-ho, who issued the warrants, according to the Yonhap news service.
Many South Koreans are divided on bringing the Somalis here for trial without getting at the roots of African piracy.
"Of course we should not go easy with the pirates who use others' lives as a way to get money," one blogger wrote Sunday. "But we really should look into why the Somali turned to piracy."
Added another: "Let's help Somalia; one of the poorest countries in the world. To root out the pirates in Somalia we have to save Somalia first."
Jung-yoon Choi in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.