By Mohamed Ahmed
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - A Somali court has jailed three Britons and an American for illegally bringing in millions of dollars in ransom for pirates, but the judge suggested the convicts could buy their freedom.
The Somali government says it is illegal to pay off armed gangs plaguing the strategic shipping lanes linking Europe and Asia, though the practice is common. The three Westerners were among six foreigners to face prison in a precedent-setting case.
The Horn of Africa country, where piracy has boomed amid a lack of effective central government, seized two aircraft carrying $3.6 million in the capital Mogadishu late last month.
"We sentenced the two pilots, who are American and British nationals, to 15 years' imprisonment and a $15,000 fine each," the Mogadishu court's judge, Hashi Elmi, told Reuters late on Saturday.
The charges were illegally bringing money into the country, carrying cash intended to pay ransoms for hijacked ships and landing in Mogadishu without proper papers. The cash and planes were now the property of Somalia's government, Elmi said.
The four other foreign convicts, among them two Kenyans, got 10-year jail terms and fines of $10,000.
All six, Elmi said, "can appeal, and if they ask to pay more instead of (remaining in) prison then we shall see and take our decision."
In London, the Foreign Office said it had received word that Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed had ordered the group not be moved from the relative safety of the capital's airport.
"We are aware of the verdict. We have impressed upon the (Somali) Transitional Federal Government (the need) to ensure the safety and security of the group while legal options are considered," a Foreign Office spokesman said.
Rubble-strewn, coastal Mogadishu is at the core of a four-year insurgency waged by Islamists bent on toppling the government and imposing their own strict version of sharia law.
Government troops control almost three-quarters of the city, helped by 9,000 African peacekeepers propping up the government.
Maritime piracy costs the global economy up to $12 billion annually and has spawned numerous private security businesses offering armed protection for ships and conducting ransom drops, either on to the captured vessels from light aircraft, or via go-betweens in coastal cities.
(Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths in London; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Dan Williams)