KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Seven Somali pirates were charged with firearms offences in a Malaysian court on Friday in a move that could see some of them hanged if they are found guilty in the first prosecution of Somali pirates by an Asian country.
The pirates - three of who were 15-years old - were captured in January by Malaysian commandos after they attempted to hijack a Malaysian-owned chemicals tanker.
They seven, wearing bright orange jump-suits, did not enter a plea after the charges were read in a court in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and prosecutor Mohamed Aba Zafree said the 15-year olds would not face the death penalty as they were minors.
The decision to prosecute came as pirate attacks hit a seven-year high in 2010, according to the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau which collates statistics on attacks, disrupting shipping lanes at a time when the price of raw materials has moved sharply higher.
Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have hijacked vessels in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden for years, making millions of dollars in ransoms by seizing ships, including oil tankers, despite the presence of dozens of foreign naval vessels.
There were 445 actual and attempted pirate attacks on ships around the world in 2010, equal to the last peak recorded in 2003, the International Maritime Bureau said.
South Korea recently arrested five pirates over the hikacking of a chemicals ship in the Arabian Sea but has yet to charge them.
Naval forces in the Gulf of Aden have been beefed up to counter the pirate threat and some countries have responded more aggressively than others.
Russian forces in 2010 stormed a hijacked oil tanker and the bodies of ten pirates who had been captured were later found adrift in a boat.
But it has proved difficult to find jurisdictions in which to charge pirates as conflict-torn Somalia lacks the legal infrastructure to do so.
While Kenya and the Seychelles have prosecuted dozens of suspects handed over by foreign navies they have both said they would have difficulties coping if all the seized pirates were sent to them.
United Nations officials have suggested setting up specialised courts in Somaliland and Puntland in northern Somalia, and at Arusha in Tanzania to try pirate using Somali law.