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Somali pirates 'kidnap tourists'  Sep 03, 2008

Two French citizens and their sailing boat have been seized by pirates off the Somali coast, French officials say.

The BBC's Ahmed Ali in Puntland says a delegation of officials from the semi-autonomous northern region has gone to Eyl port to investigate.

In April, French commandos made six arrests in a helicopter raid against pirates after they freed a French yacht's crew.

The seas off Somalia have some of the highest rates of piracy in the world.

The country has been without a functioning central government for 17 years and has suffered from continual civil strife.

In the capital, Mogadishu, heavy fighting erupted on Wednesday morning with insurgents trading fire with government troops, supported by Ethiopian forces, around the presidential palace.

The BBC's Mohammed Olad Hassan in the city said residents were trying to take shelter in their homes while heavy artillery shells exploded around them.

Four civilians are reported to have died in the fighting and eight others were injured.

Islamist militia have threatened to increase their attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began this week.

About 2,200 of a planned 8,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force have been sent to Mogadishu since Ethiopia helped oust Islamists in 2006.

'Beyond our capacity'

"France firmly condemns this act of piracy and calls for the immediate release of the people held on board this yacht. Our prime concern is the safety of our compatriots," a French foreign ministry statement said.

It said "discretion" was needed in such cases.

Sources close to the pirates had earlier reported the hijacking to the BBC Somali service.

It is not clear if there were any other people on board the sailing boat.

Along the coast, attacks against fishing boats, cargo ships and yachts have surged over recent months and foreigners, who can be exchanged for large ransoms, are frequent targets.

Puntland's Ports Minister Ahmed Saed Ali Nur said the authorities had not made contact with the pirates.

"We don't have any information about their whereabouts. We haven't had any contact with the kidnappers. Ransom is not a solution," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

He said that pirates in the region had about 10 vessels captive at the moment, adding "it's beyond our capacity to tackle this problem".

The pirates are well-armed and employ a lot of people, he said.

"The problem is that there no co-operation between different stakeholders.

"You have the ship-owners paying the ransom; on the other side you the international navy present in international waters and they don't intervene, they didn't do anything."

In June, the UN Security Council voted to allow countries to send warships into Somalia's waters to tackle the pirates.

France has troops in nearby Djibouti and also participates in a multi-national naval force that patrols this part of the Indian Ocean.

The six pirates seized by the French military in April were handed over to French justice officials to be tried.

Somali pirates 'kidnap tourists'

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