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Officials: NY FBI launches criminal piracy probe

WASHINGTON - FBI agents are investigating the Somalipirates who hijacked a U.S. ship and are holding its captainhostage, U.S. officials said Saturday, raising the possibility offederal charges against the men if they are captured.

Even as Navy warships were in a standoff with the piratesfloating in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean, FBI agents from NewYork were investigating how the hijacking unfolded, according totwo officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they werenot authorized to discuss the case.

Attorney General Eric Holder said this past week that theJustice Department had not seen a case of piracy against a U.S.ship in hundreds of years. But authorities have prepared for suchan event as the threat of piracy along the African coast has risen.

"If there were ever a U.S. victim of one of these attacks or aU.S. shipping line that were a victim, our Justice Department hassaid that it would favorably consider prosecuting such apprehendedpirates," Stephen Mull, the acting undersecretary of state forinternational security and arms control, told Congress last month.

Somali pirates boarded and briefly took control of a U.S. cargoship, the Maersk Alabama. The crew thwarted the hijackers, however,and the pirates fled to a lifeboat with Capt. Richard Phillips ashostage.

Under U.S. law, crimes aboard U.S. ships or against U.S.citizens can be prosecuted in U.S. courts, even when they occur ininternational waters.

The FBI investigation is being run out of New York because theoffice there oversees cases involving U.S. citizens in Africa.Other field offices take the lead depending on where in the worldthe crime occurs.

The FBI has a legal attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and hasagents elsewhere in Africa to assist the investigation.

Whether charges ever get filed depends on how the standoff playsout. If the pirates are captured at sea, it will be much easier forU.S. authorities to prosecute.

The pirates have summoned reinforcements and are trying to makeit back, with the hostage, to lawless Somalia. That would make itharder for authorities to stage a rescue attempt and would make theFBI's case murkier because the U.S. does not have an extraditiontreaty with Somalia.

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