A group of Somali pirates captured by the Russian navy in the Gulf of Aden and then set free in a boat are most probably dead after failing to reach the shore, a Russian defence source said Tuesday.
The 10 pirates were captured last week after seizing a Russian oil tanker but were then unexpectedly released, with Russian officials saying there was insufficient legal basis to keep them in detention.
“According to the latest information, the pirates who seized the Moscow University oil tanker failed to reach the shore. Evidently, they have all died,” the high-ranking source was quoted as saying by all Russia’s official news agencies.
The source said that radio signals from the boat stopped just one hour after it had been set free by the Russian navy. No details were given over the manner in which they could have lost their lives.
Reports have said that after their release the Russian navy put the pirates in a boat some 300 nautical miles offshore, removing all weaponry and navigational equipment from the vessel.
“It would have been more humane to have hung them up from the yardarm,” a rights activist, whose name was not given, told the Kommersant daily at the weekend.
Marines from the Russian destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov freed the tanker from the pirate’s grasp in a dawn operation last week hailed as exemplary by Russian defence experts and officials.
President Dmitry Medvedev said the raid was “sharp, professional and quick” and ordered medals for all those involved in the rescue.
The fate of the pirates had been a mystery.
Media had at the weekend published a picture taken by state media showing 10 pirates lying face down, hands tied behind their back on the red deck of the Russian ship.
A top naval official also told Kommersant that the Russian navy had originally planned to accompany the pirates to within 12 miles of the shore but the offer of escort was turned down.
But Somalia’s ambassador to Moscow Mohammed Handule denied that the Russian navy had acted improperly in the affair.
“Not one Somali or the government of our country sees Russia as being guilty in this. The Russian military showed they can act effectively so that not one crew member of the captured tanker was hurt.”
“This is the most important thing,” he said according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.
Russian shipping expert Mikhail Voitenko said reports about the pirates being set free in a boat could just be covering the possibility they had all been killed in the raid to free the Moscow University.
“I think this is linked to the fact nobody released the pirates and they were killed in the operation,” Voitenko, editor of the Maritime Bulletin, told Moscow Echo radio.
“Then someone had the not very intelligent idea ‘let’s pretend that they were released in the middle of the ocean hundreds of miles from the shore without any navigational aids’.”
After the tanker was recaptured, officials had also sent conflicting signals about the future of the pirates.
Russia’s investigative committee of prosecutors had said steps were being taken to bring the pirates to Moscow to face charges but later backtracked, saying that this was not being discussed.
The episode is the latest high-seas intrigue involving Russia, after the disappearance last year of the Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea ship which some reports said was carrying an illicit Russian arms cargo for Iran.
Russia denied the charges and arrested eight “pirates” who it said had hijacked the vessel.