France frees yacht off Somalia

PARIS Fri Apr 10, 2009 8:49pm BST

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PARIS (Reuters) - A French hostage was killed and four others were freed on Friday when French forces attacked pirates who had seized their yacht off Somalia, officials said.

Two pirates were shot dead during the military assault and three were captured.

Pirates seized the sailing boat Tanit, carrying two couples and a 3-year-old boy at the time, far from the coast of the east African country on April 4.

French Defence Minister Herve Morin said the father of the child, Florent Lemacon, died during Friday's rescue mission, which lasted a few minutes.

A military official said elite forces shot dead two pirates who were on deck when they stormed the boat.

Lemacon had been in the cabin at the time and it was not clear if he was killed in the crossfire or deliberately shot by one of his captives. The four French survivors were unharmed and put on a navy vessel bound for Djibouti.

France has taken a leading role in international efforts to halt rampant hijackings off Somalia and its forces have captured at least 60 pirates since April 2008, bringing several of them to Paris for eventual trial.

"France will never give into pirates' blackmail or to terrorism," Morin told a news conference.

The French navy made contact with the pirates on Thursday and decided to launch the rescue bid after the gang refused to accept an offer of a ransom and tried instead to sail towards the coast.

"We proposed everything we were able to offer, enabling them reach to land. We even offered them a ransom," Morin said, declining to say how much money was put forward.

It was the third time in a year that the French military had intervened after a French-registered yacht was captured, and the first time a hostage has died.

Chloe and Florent Lemacon left France with their son Colin last July aboard the Tanit, writing about their adventures in a blog -- tanit.over-blog.fr/.

They picked up another couple along the way and were heading towards the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

The French Foreign Ministry said earlier this week the French navy had urged the Lemacons not to sail through the Gulf of Aden but that the warning had gone unheeded.

Morin said French sailors should avoid the area.

"I repeat in the clearest manner and with the most forthright warning to any of our citizens who are thinking about venturing into this area of the Indian Ocean, I ask them to forget it," he said.

The Lemacons mentioned the risk posed by pirates in their blog, but shrugged off the threat.

"The danger exists but the ocean remains huge. The pirates must not destroy our dream," they said in a post from January.

(Additional reporting by Clotaire Achi; Editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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