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Somali Man Pleads Guilty in U.S. to Hijacking Ship Off Africa

A Somali pirate captured by the U.S. military in April 2009 when Navy commandoes freed an American container ship off the coast of Africa pleaded guilty to hijacking charges, prosecutors said.

Abduwali Muse admitted in federal court in Manhattan yesterday to two counts of hijacking maritime vessels, two counts of kidnapping and two counts hostage taking, according to a statement issued by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

The U.S. said in an indictment filed in January that Muse and others hijacked two other ships before the Maersk Alabama.

“What we did was wrong,” Muse said in court, according to a transcript of his remarks translated into English. “I am very sorry for all of this. It happened because of the situation in Somalia.”

Prosecutors said Muse was the leader of the group of pirates who overtook the Maersk Alabama on April 8, 2009, and held its captain captive for five days. Muse was the first pirate to board the ship, fired at Captain Richard Phillips from the deck, forced him to stop the ship, and demanded that he hand over $30,000 from the ship’s safe, according to court papers filed by prosecutors. The group later kept Phillips in a lifeboat off the Somali coast.

Recommended Sentence

Muse could face as long as life in prison on the charges of hostage-taking and kidnapping. Prosecutors said in a plea agreement that they wouldn’t seek a sentence of longer than 33 years and nine months, with a minimum term of 27 years. Muse is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 19 by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska.

Muse’s lawyer, Philip Weinstein, declined to comment after yesterday’s hearing.

Muse “led the hostage-taking of crew members, threatened them with firearms and in at least one instance, an improvised explosive device,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire said at a hearing in January.

Muse, who prosecutors say was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, was taken aboard the USS Bainbridge for treatment of his injured arm and was apprehended by U.S. sailors when Navy snipers shot dead the three kidnappers in the lifeboat, the military said.

He was transferred to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which brought him to New York.

Prosecutors allege that in March 2009, Muse and others boarded an unidentified ship in the Indian Ocean armed with weapons and took hostages. Muse is accused of threatening to kill everyone aboard with an improvised explosive device if the authorities came.

The U.S. says Muse and others left the first ship on a small boat and met a second unidentified ship that was also in the area. Muse and three others left that second ship and boarded the Maersk Alabama, prosecutors said.

The Alabama is owned by Maersk Line Ltd., a Norfolk, Virginia-based unit of Copenhagen-based A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S.

The case is U.S. v. Muse, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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