The U.S. Navy is investigating a shoot-out that occurred Saturday in the waters off the coast of Somalia between two of its ships and a group of Somali gunmen suspected to be pirates.
Twelve suspects are being held by the U.S. Navy. One gunman was killed during the exchange of gunfire.
Lieutenant Commander Charlie Brown says a criminal investigation is underway against the suspects. He says part of the investigation will focus on how and where the suspects will face trial.
VOA was unable to contact the suspects for comment. A spokesman for them, Saleban Aadan Barqad, was quoted in press reports as saying they were protecting fishing stocks from being seized by foreign vessels, and says the U.S. Navy opened fire first.
Somalia's State Minister of Parliament and Government Relations Abdurahman Ibbi tells VOA he has no doubt that the men were pirates. He says he is happy with the U.S. Navy for stepping in.
"When I heard, actually I was so happy with it, and I am grateful actually of hearing such things," said Ibbi. "These are pirates, and nobody has done anything against them, and now I am glad that we have got some people at least who are thinking of us."
Lieutenant Commander Brown describes to VOA the U.S. Navy's version of the incident involving the USS Cape St. George and the USS Gonzalez.
"We spotted these vessels. They were operating in a pattern that has been consistent with previous pirate attacks," he said. "Because of the location they were operating in, because of their operating pattern, we were preparing to go over and do a routine boarding. We were in international water and that is under international law. We went to do that, and as we went to do that, they opened fire on the navy sailors."
Lieutenant Commander Brown says five of the suspects were injured and are now receiving medical treatment. He says the navy seized several automatic weapons and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher from the suspects.
Piracy has become a big problem off the coast of Somalia for the past year.
The London-based International Maritime Bureau monitors piracy activities world-wide. According to its latest weekly piracy report for March 7 to March 13, 39 incidents have been reported since March of last year.
It says heavily armed pirates are attacking ships further away from the coast, and advises ships not making scheduled calls at Somali ports to keep at least 200 nautical miles from the Somali coast.
The U.S. Navy has had several encounters with suspected pirates. On January 24 of this year, the USS Winston S. Churchill intercepted and apprehended a band of suspected pirates 90 kilometers off the central eastern coast of Somalia.
Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a statement urging navies to be more vigilant in apprehending suspected pirates, as they are hindering the transportation of food aid into drought-stricken Somalia and other parts of eastern Africa.