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Five Somali men accused of firing assault rifles at a Navy ship off the coast of Africa are set to face the first U.S. piracy trial in more than 100 years.

The suspected pirates are accused of shooting at the frigate Nicholas in an attempt to plunder what they thought was a merchant ship. Instead, they fired on a battle-tested, 453-foot ship patrolling the pirate-infested waters, which shot back, forcing the men to flee in their small skiff, prosecutors said.

The men, along with other suspected pirates, were eventually captured and brought back to the U.S. to stand trial. Yet, until now, no case has actually gone to a jury. The federal trial will begin Tuesday and is expected to last about a month.

The most infamous pirate captured in the spring was Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse. The Somali suspect who staged a brazen high-seas attack on the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama pleaded guilty in New York to charges he hijacked the ship and kidnapped its captain. He faces a minimum of 27 years in prison.

The group of men accused in the Nicholas attack April 1 face a much stiffer punishment if convicted of piracy, which carries a mandatory life sentence. Yet the charge may be difficult to prove for prosecutors, in part because the suspected pirates never actually boarded the vessel.

The government acknowledges the five defendants did not take control of the Navy frigate with a crew of 100 highly-trained sailors, which defense attorneys argue is necessary to prosecute the piracy count.

“They fired on a Navy ship. That’s the whole case,” said David Bouchard, an attorney for the Somali men. “The didn’t go on the boat. They didn’t shoot anybody. They didn’t rob it.”

Source: Steve Szkotak for The Associated Press.

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