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Lack of prosecution poses challenge for foreign navies that catch Somali pirates

If no deal is reached, the Navy may have to let the prisoners go. "Catch and release is always the last resort, but on occasion, we have resorted to the last resort," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "You can't rule it out."

Catch and release

Many European countries, whose navies are contributing to the international flotilla patrolling the waters off Somalia, have been much quicker to employ the catch-and-release approach.

The European Union's naval forces caught 275 pirates off the coast of Somalia in March and April but released 235 of them after confiscating their weapons, said Anders Kallin, a Swedish navy commander and spokesman for the E.U. forces. Ten were taken to Hamburg to face charges of attacking a German-owned container ship, despite some German officials' fears that the suspects might seek asylum. The island nation of Seychelles agreed to prosecute 11 others, while the remaining 19 were handed over to authorities in Puntland, a region in southern Somalia.

In the same period, the U.S. Navy -- which focuses more on capturing terrorists -- caught 39 Somali pirates and released 18 of them.

The increased foreign naval presence has reduced the number of hijackings in the Gulf of Aden, a vital shipping lane leading to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. But pirates have responded by hunting for prey elsewhere in the region.

Overall, Somali pirates attempted 217 hijackings in 2009, almost double the number from the year before, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a London-based agency. As of March 31, suspected Somali pirates were holding 10 vessels for ransom, along with 178 crew members, the bureau reported.

U.S. Navy commanders say that the region is too vast for them to patrol effectively and that it is incumbent on merchant ships to protect themselves. The only long-term solution, they say, is to restore law and order in Somalia. But the country has lacked a functional central government for two decades, and piracy represents one of the few growth spots in an otherwise shattered economy.

"I don't think we can sustain the level of operation that we have down there forever," Adm. Mark P. Fitzgerald, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, told Pentagon reporters last month. "How do we deal with this? We've got to come to some kind of solution."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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