Three suspected Nigerian pirates who were arrested after surviving heavy gunfire from a Danish frigate last November have been freed by the authorities in the country.
The three were among eight suspects who allegedly attacked a commercial vessel in the Gulf of Guinea last year, killing four people, while one was seriously wounded.
The fourth, who was injured and had his leg amputated appeared in court in Copenhagen at the weekend, where he was charged with the attempted manslaughter of Danish soldiers.
However, the three other suspected Nigerian pirates picked up by a Danish frigate at the same time and who faced the same charges were freed after Denmark said it failed to find a country in the region to take them.
The three, who had been detained aboard the frigate Esbern Snare in the Gulf of Guinea, were put to sea in a small dinghy, an inflatable rubber boat, with enough food and fuel for them to reach safely to shore, after the charges against them were withdrawn.
“They have no relation to Denmark, and the crime they have been charged with was committed far from Denmark. They simply do not belong here, and that’s why I think it’s the right thing to do,” Danish Justice Minister, Nick Haekkerup, said in a statement.
The frigate, which deployed off West Africa in October, intervened in an alleged attack on a commercial vessel the following month, killing the four pirates and taking another four suspects on board the frigate.
According to the Danish Armed Forces, Denmark has since failed to find a country in the region to agree to take the four, a Reuters report indicated.
The fourth surviving suspect, who was taken to a hospital in Ghana was later brought to Denmark for prosecution because he could not safely be released at sea due to his medical condition.
The suspect pleaded not guilty to attempted manslaughter of Danish soldiers. His lawyer Birgitte Skjodt was reported as telling broadcaster TV2 that she asked for the charges against her client to be withdrawn, as was done for the other three suspects.
Prosecutor Karen Moestrup Jensen for Denmark’s Special Crime Unit (SCU) said the investigation into the incident would continue.
Denmark deployed the frigate to the Gulf of Guinea to protect shipping amid heightened security risks from pirates last year October.
The waters have been a piracy hotspot for years, but incidents have decreased since national authorities stepped up security efforts aided by foreign naval ships.
During their capture, the armed had stated: “No Danish soldiers were injured, but five pirates were shot. Four of the pirates died. One was injured.”
The authorities in Denmark stressed that the Danish forces fired warning shots, and the pirates immediately fired back. “The Danish soldiers acted in self-defence and returned fire,” the statement said.
At the time, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told a news conference that the soldiers’ intervention had “probably prevented concrete pirate attacks against vessels in the region.”
The head of the federation of Danish ship owners, Anne Steffensen, praised the intervention, saying that: “The presence of Danish soldiers is absolutely necessary and, even if this appears harsh, piracy has a price.”
After the shooting, the pirate ship sank and the eight pirates were brought aboard the frigate, where a seriously injured one of their number was treated, the statement added.
The Danish navy had said they spotted a fast-moving vessel carrying eight suspected pirates near a number of commercial ships.
The incident took place in international waters,25 to 30 nautical miles south of Nigeria’s territorial boundary, a spokesman noted, saying that the motorboat, spotted by a helicopter deployed by the frigate, was carrying equipment associated with piracy, including ladders.
It was the first time the frigate had opened fire during its current mission to the Gulf of Guinea, the spokesman said.
A piracy hotspot stretching 5,700 kilometres (3,540 miles) from Senegal to Angola, the Gulf of Guinea saw 195 attacks in 2020. The same year, 130 of 135 hostage takings at sea occurred in the region, according to the International Maritime Office.
The Danish helicopter-equipped frigate and its 175 sailors “are fulfilling an important task by protecting Danish and other commercial vessels in the region,” Defence Minister Trine Bramsen told news agency Ritzau.
American, British, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese navies have also sent assistance, ships or training forces over the past year to tackle piracy after a record 130 sailors were taken from vessels in the region in 2020.
Piracy and armed robbery incidents dropped to 28 in the first nine months of 2021, compared with 46 in the same period in 2020, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).
The frigate, generally lighter than a destroyer and of a kind originally introduced for convoy escort work, will operate in the region until April this year.