By Angela Doland
Saturday, April 12, 2008
PARIS, April 11 -- 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 had boarded the 288-foot French luxury yacht a week ago, capturing its mostly French crew off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. Pirates seized more than two dozen vessels off the Somali coast last year.
Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, chief of staff of France's armed forces, said the pirates released the hostages after negotiating with the ship's owner. That phase of the operation was calm, with no weapons fired, he said. The hostages were brought to safety and the pirates went ashore.
After 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 of 12 hostage-takers were in 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 had.
An official in Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region had warned France against paying a ransom, saying it would encourage pirates to take more hostages.
Jean-Emmanuel Sauvee, chief of the company that owns the ship, declined to comment on the ransom issue.
"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," Sauvee said 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 said by telephone from the village of Eyl, about 300 miles north of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital.
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.