By Mark Anderson
HARGEISA (Reuters) - The United Nations has transferred 17 convicted Somali pirates to a jail in the breakaway enclave of Somaliland, the first transfers of their kind that could help resolve a dilemma over where to hold criminals seized in international waters.
International navies have been fighting a surge of pirate attacks that have disrupted a vital shipping route off the coast of lawless Somalia and deep into the Indian ocean.
But it has long been unclear where pirates captured on the high seas should be imprisoned, particularly while Somalia itself remains locked in chaotic conflict.
The first batch of nine pirates were transferred by the United Nations from a prison in the Seychelles to Somaliland on Wednesday and another eight on Thursday following a deal signed in London last month between the leaders of the two territories.
"This prisoner transfer represents an important step forward in ensuring pirates are brought to justice," said Britain's Africa minister, Henry Bellingham.
Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991, enjoys relative peace and stability, and analysts hope it might be a good site for more incarcerations in the future.
In a dusty airfield surrounded by abandoned planes and dotted with soldiers, officials from the government and the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime watched as the nine stepped out of a plane to serve the remainder of their prison sentences.
Another flight, chartered by the United Nations with eight more convicted pirates, landed on Thursday morning.
"We sent three officers to the Seychelles to check if the pirates are who they claim. We checked through dialect and clan ties," said Mohamed Osman, head of Somaliland's Anti-Piracy Taskforce.
"There have been a number of assessment missions by the UK and the EU at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. We are expecting something to come of this," Osman said.
Funding from United Nations Development Programme helped to build a prison in Somaliland's capital Hargeisa, where the pirates are allocated a separate block away from other prisoners.
Osman said the funding, and Somaliland's increasing usefulness in the fight against piracy, would help the enclave's bid for international recognition of its independence.
"As long as states are reaching agreements and signing memorandums of understandings with us, that's a clear sign of de-facto recognition," Osman said.
Somaliland is also hoping for more funding for its own maritime police, to let it patrol its shores, particularly near Puntland, a suspected pirate haunt.
"We need nine or 10 boats so we can put three boats in each of our three sectors," said Admiral Ahmed Osman Abdi, Commander of Somaliland Coast Guard.
(Editing by Duncan Miriri and Karolina Tagaris)