French commandos stormed a sailboat to free two French tourists who were being held by heavily-armed Somali pirates, President Nicolas Sarkozy has said.
One pirate was killed and another six captured in the lightning raid, which lasted 10 minutes. The hostages were unharmed.
With the backing from a French warship stationed nearby, some thirty commandos swooped on the pirates. They received support from Germany and Malaysia, according to the Elysée.
The rescue mission coincided with the news that a Hong Kong-registered chemical tanker has been seized and its 22 crew members taken hostage in the same area.
“France will not allow crime to pay,” declared Mr Sarkozy, who dispatched the commando unit after receiving information that the pirates were approaching a highly-protected coastal base, where rescue efforts would have been far riskier.
“This operation is a warning to all those who engage in criminal activity,” said the French president, who called for an international effort to protect ships in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden and surrounding area – reputedly the world’s most dangerous.
“This is a call for the mobilisation of the international community,” he said.
Hijackers captured Jean-Yves Delanne and his wife Bernadette from their 52-foot yacht, the Carré d’As, on September 2. They had reportedly demanded a $1.4 million ransom. Mr Sarkozy confirmed a ransom had been demanded, but gave no further details.
The pirates were intercepted while heading for the coastal base in the town of Eyl, in Somalia’s northeastern semi-autonomous Puntland region.
The freed hostages are sailing enthusiasts who live in Tahiti and had been passing through the Gulf of Aden on their way from Australia to the French Atlantic port of La Rochelle when they were seized.
Their yacht was escorted back to Djibouti, where France has a military base.
The pirates are on their way to France, where they will join another six captured in a spectacular French land rescue operation earlier this year.
French commandos intervened on April 11 after Somali pirates seized a French luxury yacht, Le Ponant, and its 30 crew, holding them hostage for a week.
Authorities in Puntland welcomed the latest French military operation.
“The state of Puntland encourages such steps and calls on other governments whose nationals are being held to do the same thing,” said a presidential advisor.
His words came amid efforts to secure the release of several other vessels still in the hands of pirates in the area – the latest being the Hong-Kong registered chemical tanker.
“The incident happened in the maritime security corridor that is patrolled by coalition naval forces,” said the head of the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre. “The situation (in the Gulf of Aden) is dangerous. We urge the UN and the international community with naval assets in the region to stop this menace,” he said.
Around 50 ships, mainly merchant vessels, have been attacked by pirates off Somalia’s 2,300 miles of coastline since the beginning of the year, and dozens have been captured. According to Mr Sarkozy, Somali pirates are currently holding 150 people and at least 15 ships.
A French tuna fishing boat came under rocket attack some 700 kilometres off the Somali coast on Saturday. Pirates are becoming increasingly emboldened and now target boats in an area the size of France off the Somali coast.
A pirate mother ship is suspected of operating in the area, sending out small, heavily armed speed boats when it spots a passing vessel.
On Saturday a Japanese-operated oil tanker came under fire, while a Spanish trawler was targeted last week.
In June, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution authorising foreign warships to enter Somalia’s territorial waters with the government’s consent. However, at present very few foreign warships patrol the area.
European foreign ministers agreed on Monday to set up a special unit to coordinate the anti-piracy effort off Somalia, raising the possibility of a future EU naval mission.