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US Charges Somali Accused of Piracy

A judge has ruled that the suspect is at least 18 years old and can be tried as an adult, with a possible sentence of life in prison. But his mother says he is just 16. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

American government lawyers this week brought criminal charges against a young Somali man in connection with a ship hijacking earlier this month. They say Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse is the only survivor of a hijacking attempt on an American ship off the coast of Somalia on April eighth.

The capture of the Maersk Alabama made news around the world. The four pirates released the ship and its crew. But they took the ship's captain hostage in a small boat. Four days later, American Navy forces killed three of the hijackers and rescued the captain, Richard Phillips.

Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse was flown from Africa to New York City, where he was charged Tuesday with five crimes, including piracy and hostage-taking. A New York federal court judge has ruled that Mister Muse is at least eighteen years old and can be tried as an adult. But his mother has said he is just sixteen years old. That could create a problem for government lawyers seeking the most severe punishment for the accused -- spending the rest of his life in prison.

International law has less severe punishments for criminals under the age of eighteen.

Confirming Mister Muse's true age is difficult because birth documents are rare in Somalia. The country has not had an effective government for almost twenty years.

The International Maritime Bureau is an organization based in London that studies crimes on the high seas. The organization says the waters off the coast of Somalia, including the Gulf of Aden, are the most dangerous in the world for international shipping.

The Bureau says pirates carried out more attacks last year in the area than ever before. However, information gathered for the first three months of this year suggest two thousand nine will be even worse. Pirates have attacked at least sixty-one ships so far, compared to six for the same period last year.

Experts say pirates now control at least seventeen ships and three hundred crew members. The amount of money paid to hijackers is harder to confirm. Researchers believe this year's total is in the tens of millions of dollars.

In recent years the international community has deployed navy ships to guard the area in an effort to fight piracy. Ships from the United States and the European Union are involved in the effort. In addition, Russia, China and India also have ships in the area.

Somalia's prime minister is calling for a halt to ransom payments to pirates and kidnappers. Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke says the large amounts being paid are part of the reason for the rise in hijackings. Somalia's weak central government must deal with a deadly rebellion inside the country and is unable to police its waters. Mister Sharmarke says piracy can only be prevented when Somalia has a government that can enforce its own laws.

On Thursday in Brussels, international donors promised more than two hundred fifty million dollars to improve security in Somalia.

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English, written by Brianna Blake. I'm Steve Ember.