Britain may put on trial and jail Somali pirates in the United Kingdom if its citizens are attacked at sea, but the government's priority is to help Somalia boost its inadequate prison capacity, a British minister said on Saturday.
Pirates operating from the Somali coast have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms from hijacking ships and currently hold up to 10 ships and 200 hostages.
International navies have struggled to contain piracy in the Indian Ocean owing to the vast distances involved. Even when suspected Somali pirates are captured, Western governments have been reluctant to bring them to trial in their own courts.
If pirates harm UK citizens, and there's enough evidence, we have not ruled out those pirates being taken for detention and trial and then, if convicted, imprisonment in the UK, Henry Bellingham, Britain's Africa minister, told Reuters.
If British crew members or naval personnel were harmed, of course we would consider it, he said in an interview in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where he is attending an African Union summit.
More than 1,000 pirates have been imprisoned in the past few years, a few of them tried and jailed in European countries and the United States.
Earlier this month, a group of British lawmakers urged the government to try pirates in Britain if no other country was willing to jail suspects captured by British ships.
Though very few British merchant ships have been successfully attacked, experts say Somali piracy threatens Britain's banking, insurance and shipping industries and have called for more action from London.
Britain has said it will permit British merchant ships sailing off Somalia to carry armed guards. On February 23, London hosts an international conference on measures to tackle instability in Somalia and piracy, which cost $135 million in ransoms last year alone.
Somali authorities say their prisons are overstretched and would not be able to cope with an increase in inmate numbers.
Bellingham, acknowledging difficulties in Somalia and neighbouring countries such as Kenya, which has taken in some suspects, said priority was given to helping Somalia cope with the problem.
He added that authorities in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, intended to detain all their suspects in their homeland in the long run.
That's why we are putting money into prisons in Somaliland and in Puntland and we are very keen to see the prison in Mogadishu reopen, Bellingham said.
Somalia descended into chaos after the 1991 fall of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre. President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's government holds sway in the capital Mogadishu, but al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab rebels control much of the rest of the country.
Cooperation between Somali militants and pirate gangs is growing as al Shabaab, which faces a cross-border incursion into Somalia by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops to flush out its members, becomes more desperate for funding.
Analysts say around 90 percent of pirates detained by naval forces are released without charge, often because of questions over which country has jurisdiction over them.
(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)