France Sends Troops in Pirate Standoff

PARIS (AP) -- Elite French troops were headed to East Africa to bolster efforts to free captives of a yacht held by pirates off Somalia, a French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Monday.

A team of the GIGN, a commando force that conducts anti-terrorist and hostage rescue operations, was being sent to Djibouti to "reinforce" negotiation teams in place, spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said in an online briefing.

Pirates seized the yacht, called Le Ponant, in the Gulf of Aden on Friday. It was carrying 30 crew members, including 22 French citizens, but no passengers.

French officials made contact with the pirates overnight.

"We had confirmation that the crew was safe and sound and well-treated," Andreani said.

"Our priority is the safety of the hostages," she said.

French military spokesman Cmdr. Christophe Prazuck said the situation aboard the yacht remained "calm" Monday.

Over the weekend, military officials said that a French frigate had been diverted from its NATO duties and was tracking the yacht. An airplane dispatched from a French base in Djibouti also has flown over the yacht.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned it could take "an enormous amount of time" to settle the pirate standoff, which he called "a very serious affair."

An official in Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region, where the yacht is being held, warned the French government against paying a ransom.

"The money could only encourage the pirates to continue their criminal acts," said Puntland's information minister Abdirahman Mohamed Bangah.

He urged the "U.S. Navy and other Western marine forces" to take over the yacht by force.

President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to meet with the families of the French crew members Tuesday.

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Associated Press Writer Salad Duhul contributed to this report from Mogadishu, Somalia.

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