Britons are jailed over ransom

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Three British men accused of smuggling more than £2m into Somalia to secure the release of two hijacked ships were each jailed for between 10 and 15 years and fined £9,000, Somali authorities said last night.

Matthew Brown, a pilot, Andrew Oaks and Alex James, from a Nairobi-based security firm, Salama Fikira, were among six foreigners arrested after landing in two unmarked planes at Mogadishu airport last month. Two Kenyans and an American were also jailed.

The Foreign Office said last night it was "aware" of the verdict. "We have impressed upon the transitional federal government the need to ensure the safety and security of the group while legal options are considered," a spokesman said.

The cash is said to have been for the release of two captured vessels, the MV Suez, freed earlier this month with its 22 crew after nearly 10 months in captivity, and the MV Yuan Xiang, also freed this month with 29 crew members after almost seven months in captivity.

Somalia's transitional federal government, which controls only part of the country, opposes ransom payments, believing that it fuels piracy. The country has lacked a functioning central government since 1991.

Last night, a spokesman for Salama Fikira said: "The only thing I would say is: don't believe everything you read." The company is run by former British special forces officers Rob Andrew and Conrad Thorpe.

A UN Office on Drugs and Crime report this month suggested ransoms totalling $112m (£69m) were paid to Somali pirates in 2010, up from $75m in 2009. The average ransom demand rose from $3.4m to $5.4m between 2009 and 2010, with a record $9.5m paid last November for Samho Dream, a South Korean tanker capable of carrying two million barrels of crude oil.

The most high-profile British victims of Somali piracy are Paul and Rachel Chandler, whose yacht was hijacked in October 2009. They spent more than a year in captivity before being released late last year, allegedly after a ransom of around £600,000 was paid.