WASHINGTON — A US federal judge on Tuesday dropped piracy charges against six Somalis accused of attacking a US warship off the coast of Africa in April.
Judge Raymond Jackson of Norfolk, Virginia ruled that US government prosecutors "failed to establish that any unauthorized acts of violence or aggression committed on the high seas constitutes piracy as defined by the law of nations."
The case focused on a group of armed men aboard a small skiff who attacked the frigate USS Ashland April 10 in the Gulf of Aden.
As the skiff drew even with the frigate, "at least one person on defendants' skiff raised and shot a firearm at the USS Ashland," read the ruling, of which AFP obtained a copy.
The US frigate "responded by returning fire, destroying the skiff and killing one of the passengers."
Ashland crew members "observed in the burning skiff, among other things, the remains of an AK-47 style firearm. Crew members then took defendants into custody."
However "at no time did the defendants board or attempt to board the USS Ashland," Jackson said.
"For the first time since 1820, this court is faced with the task of interpreting the piracy statute as it applies to alleged conduct in international waters," the ruling said.
The six men were charged on April 23 in Norfolk along with five others accused of similar acts against another US military vessel -- the USS Nicholas off the Seychelles Islands, on the eastern coast of Africa -- which they mistook for a merchant vessel. That case is being handled by another judge in Norfolk.
While the suspects no longer face charges of piracy they still face seven charges that include assault with dangerous weapons and attacks to plunder a vessel.
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