France: Hostages Held Off Somalia Freed

By: AP
By: AP

PARIS (AP) -- Helicopter-borne French troops swooped in on Somali pirates Friday after they freed 30 hostages from a yacht, seizing six of the hijackers and recovering sacks of money - apparently ransom paid by the ship's owners.

The pirates boarded the 288-foot French luxury yacht Le Ponant a week ago, capturing its crew - 22 of whom were French - off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. Pirates seized more than two dozen vessels off the Somali coast last year, mostly in hopes of securing ransoms.

Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, the chief of staff of France's armed forces, said the pirates released the hostages after negotiations with the ship's owner. That phase of the operation was calm, with no weapons fired, he said. The hostages were brought smoothly to safely and the pirates went ashore.

Once the pirates were on Somali territory, a French attack helicopter chased a vehicle carrying some of them, firing to destroy its engine, the general said.

There were conflicting reports about what happened next.

Dahir Abdulqadir, a Somali governor in the region near where the yacht was held, said officials had heard "reports over VHF radio that at least eight people were killed." But the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy denied any pirates died in the raid.

Georgelin said six pirates - out of a dozen hostage-takers - were taken into custody and would be tried in French courts. All six "gave themselves up without too much difficulty," he added.

While insisting France did not pay a ransom, the general indicated the yacht's owners did.

"Naturally, absolutely no public money was paid in this affair," Georgelin said. He added: "Check with the ship owner. In capturing the pirates, we also recovered some interesting bags ... We recovered part of the ransom that was probably paid."

An official in Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region had warned France against paying a ransom, saying it would encourage pirates to take more hostages.

The chief of the company that owns the ship declined comment.

"It's obviously a very delicate and difficult context, and so the only thing you should take from this is the outcome - crew members who are going to be able to go home to their families," Jean-Emmanuel Sauvee told reporters after meeting with Sarkozy and families of the freed hostages.

Karim Meghoufel, the brother-in-law of a pastry chef aboard the boat, added, "We don't know how much they paid, and in any case, we don't want to know."

The hostages, including six Filipinos and a Ukrainian, were in good condition, officials said. Abdi-salan Qoje, a fisherman working on the Somali shore, said he saw dozens of people being ferried from the hijacked ship.

"They waved at us," he told The Associated Press by telephone from the village of Eyl, about 300 miles north of Mogadishu, capital of Somalia.

After the hostages were freed, they were put on a French military vessel and sent toward Djibouti. Relatives said they were expected in France on Sunday.

According to the ship owner's Web site, the three-mast, 64-passenger Le Ponant features four decks, two restaurants, and indoor and outdoor luxury lounges. About a dozen pirates stormed the yacht April 4 as it was returning without passengers from the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, toward the Mediterranean Sea.

France's military quickly mobilized, sending in vessels and a commando force that conducts anti-terrorist and hostage rescue operations.

Somalia has been wracked by more than a decade of violence and anarchy and does not have its own navy. A transitional government formed in 2004 with U.N. help has struggled to assert control.

Sarkozy's chief diplomatic aide, Jean-David Levitte, said France planned to put forth anti-piracy measures at the U.N. Security Council. One suggestion is for states that can afford it to provide maritime patrols in waters where pirate attacks are a problem, he said.

Levitte said 3,200 people have been taken hostage at sea in the last 10 years in trouble spots around the world, with 500 of them wounded and 160 killed.

"We thought piracy had disappeared, but it has been revealed as a growing menace to international security," he said.

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Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and John Leicester in Paris, Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Oliver Teves in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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