Two held in 'pirate swap plot'

Two security contractors - a Briton and Kenyan - and three former hostages released by Somali pirates are facing prison over an alleged plot to swap the captives for 23 suspected pirates on a desolate Somali airstrip, officials said today.

The allegations will increase concern over the actions of unregulated private security contractors in the violent African nation, which has been mired in a civil war for the past 18 years.

The country's lawless coastline provides a haven for pirates who prey on one of the world's busiest trade routes. The vessels and their crews are only released for ransoms, which can run into millions of dollars.

Last February, three Seychelles sailors on board the yacht Serenity became the latest victims. The boat sank and the men were stranded with no-one willing to pay their ransom.

In the meantime, international warships were stopping and searching boats off the Somali coast. Suspects that the navies judged had enough evidence to prosecute were handed over either to neighbouring Kenya or the tiny Seychelles islands south-east of Somalia for trial.

The events that followed are disputed. Somali officials say the Seychelles authorities secretly planned to release the 23 in exchange for the three captured sailors, a claim Seychelles strenuously denies. But both sides agree that the 23 suspected pirates were flown to Somalia on Sunday in two planes, accompanied by two security consultants.

Ahmed Ali Salad, governor of Mudug region in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, said the planes' pilots told authorities they were delivering humanitarian goods.

Instead, the plane stopped at a rundown airstrip, and the 23 pirates disembarked into the arms of their jubilant comrades. They melted away into Somalia's arid bush, leaving behind the three former hostages.

"We sent the police force but by the time they arrived the planes were already in air, so you can imagine how well organised the plan was," the governor said.

The police caught up with the planes at a refuelling stop on Sunday, detaining everyone on board.

Joel Morgan, the Seychelles minister in charge of anti-piracy operations, denies any deal was struck.

He said the 23 were released due to lack of evidence, and picking up the three former hostages was a cost-effective way of using the planes. All the necessary authorities in Somalia were informed, he said, and no ransom was paid.

It is extremely unusual for sailors to be released without ransom and the Somali authorities insist they were not informed.

It would be extremely embarrassing for the tiny island nation, which lies south-east of Somalia's pirate-plagued shores, to be seen releasing prisoners entrusted to them for trial by allied navies.

Mr Salad said the two planes and five crew members had been released this morning after paying a fine for violating Somali airspace. He declined to comment on the amount of the money paid.

He said the two security contractors and the three former hostages - who had only the briefest taste of freedom after six months of captivity - would appear in a Puntland court in the next few days.

Somali pirates captured more than 100 ships last year, often receiving multimillion-dollar ransoms for their release.

Attacks have increased this year and are expected to rise steeply as the monsoon period ends in the next few weeks.

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