By Mohamed Ahmed and Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia has pardoned six foreigners convicted of illegally carrying millions of dollars into the country with the intention of paying pirate ransoms, a government spokesman and presidency officials said.
Somali authorities detained three Britons, an America and two Kenyans late last month, impounding their two aircraft and $3.6 million in cash.
"Considering the humanitarian situation, the Somali President pardoned the six foreigners," government spokesman Abdirahman Osman Yarisow told Reuters on Sunday, adding that the ransom money the men were carrying would be kept.
The Somali government says it is illegal to pay ransoms to the armed pirate gangs stalking the strategic sea-lanes linking Europe and Asia, but the practice remains common.
A Somali court convicted the six of illegally taking money into the country, aiding and abetting piracy and undermining the integrity of the Somali state.
They were handed jail terms of up to 15 years and ordered to pay fines of up to $15,000.
The government spokesman and officials at the presidency said the men would be allowed to leave Somalia with the two planes, after paying fines for each aircraft.
"Because of their illegal arrival, the two planes were each fined $50,000. And the $3.6 million in cash has been taken by the government. They may fly today or tomorrow. It depends on their departure process. The Somali government never encourages payments to pirates" he said.
A Reuters witness said the men were in a police building at Mogadishu airport on Sunday morning.
Maritime piracy costs the global economy up to $12 billion annually and has spawned numerous private security businesses offering armed protection for ships and ransom deliveries, which are often dropped onto hijacked ships from light aircraft.
The security consultancy firm that had contracted the men to carry the ransom money declined to comment.
(Editing by David Clarke)