MAY 25 2010 18:10h

First European trial of Somali pirate suspects opens

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A cargo ship crew member told a Dutch court how he feared for his life during an attack by rocket-toting sea bandits as the first European trial of alleged Somali pirates began Tuesday.

- I saw that one of the men had a rocket launcher in his hands - the Dutch Antilles-flagged ship's first machinist told investigators of last year's attack in a statement read out in the Rotterdam court.

He said the pirates, allegedly the five Somali men in court, shot at the ship with assault rifles and later "I saw the rocket launcher being aimed at the bridge. I saw it go off, but it missed. I feared for my life."

The suspects, facing jail terms of up to 12 years for the attack on the Samanyolu cargo ship, denied they had done anything wrong despite two of them admitting they had initially set off to sea with ambitions of piracy.

- The (piracy) plan was abandoned - suspect Abdirisaq Abdulahi Hirsi, 33, told the court.

- The engine (of the skiff) was broken, we had no food and no water and I was ill. We had been at sea for three days, I decided not to follow through (the hijacking), but to die at sea - he said.

Hirsi said he and his team had approached the ship for help with their hands in the air.

- I shouted that I needed help.-

Osman Musse Farah, 32, backed Hirsi's version, saying: "I went to sea to hijack a ship. But while at sea, we encountered problems. When we saw the ship, we approached it for help, with our hands in the air, but they did not trust us."

'While we had our hands in the air, they shot at us'

Two other suspects insisted they were mere fishermen who had sought help when the engine of their skiff broke.

- The intention was to fish - said Farah Ahmed Yusuf, 25, but after their boat broke down "we wanted to get help from the ship," he told judge Jan Willem Klein Wolterink.

AFP-.--.-- As we came closer, we put our hands in the air. While we had our hands in the air, they shot at us. They attacked us -

Yusuf said he and his co-accused never fired any shots at the Samanyolu, a claim supported by co-accused Sayid Ali Garaar, 39, who said: "We were not pirates, we were fishermen. There were no weapons."

The five suspects, including 45-year-old Jama Mohamed Samatar who insisted he was just hitching a ride with the rest of the group, were apprehended in the Gulf of Aden in January last year.

A Danish frigate intercepted the men's high-speed boat as they prepared to board the Samanyolu after attacking it with automatic weapons and rockets, according to the prosecution.

The Netherlands issued European arrest warrants for the five men three weeks after their arrest, and they were flown on a military plane from Bahrain the following month to the Netherlands, where they have been in custody ever since.

The trial is expected to last five days and judgement is set to be handed down on June 16, Vincent de Winkel, a spokesman for the Rotterdam court, has told AFP.

Garaar made an emotional appeal to judge Wolterink not to allow any further delays in the trial. "If our children are hungry, who is responsible?" "I don't know who is still alive and who has died," he said.

- You sleep in your house while I have no country, no family. I have nothing - Garaar said of life in his lawless homeland in the Horn of Africa.

According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau, which monitors maritime crime, pirates attempted 215 attacks on merchant ships off the Somali coast in 2009.

Last Tuesday, a Yemeni court sentenced six Somali pirates to death and jailed six others for 10 years each for hijacking a Yemeni oil tanker and killing two cabin crew in April last year.