By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
PARIS, Sept. 16 -- French special forces stormed a hijacked sailboat and freed two French hostages held captive since Sept. 2 in a small Somali port, killing one of the kidnappers and capturing six, the government announced Tuesday.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said the raid demonstrated France's determination to protect its citizens in the Gulf of Aden, where pirates operate with near impunity. France will use military force there when necessary, he added, calling on other nations to join him in deploying more ships and planes to protect maritime traffic off the Horn of Africa.
The operation, the second such rescue by French commandos this year, fit in with the muscular foreign policy that Sarkozy has sought to carry out since taking over as president in May 2007. He has pledged to cooperate more actively with France's allies and make the country's voice heard more clearly in the international arena.
"This operation -- I tell you this so everyone hears the voice of France -- constitutes a warning for all those who commit these criminal acts and also an appeal for mobilization by the international community," he said in a televised announcement alongside Prime Minister François Fillon and Jean-Louis Georgelin, the chief of staff of France's armed forces.
The two hostages, identified as Jean-Yves and Bernadette Delanne from the French island of Tahiti, were seized by pirates two weeks ago in the Gulf of Aden as they were delivering a 48-foot sailing yacht, the Carre d'As, from Australia to La Rochelle, on France's Atlantic coast. They were confined aboard the craft at the port of Bargaal, in the northern part of a semiautonomous region of Somalia called Puntland, according to reports in Paris.
Sarkozy said he called on the French military to be ready for a rescue operation as soon as he heard the boat had been captured. He decided to act, he said, when he received information that the Carre d'As and the two hostages were about to be moved to Eyl, a port where he said other hijacked ships are being held and any rescue operation would be much more difficult.
After being held up for three days by high winds, soldiers from the Special Operations Command got the go-ahead late Monday. Without providing details of the 10-minute skirmish, Sarkozy said one pirate was killed and six were taken into custody, after which the Carre d'As was put on its way. Neither of the hostages and none of the 30 French soldiers involved in the operation was killed or wounded, he added.
The pirates had demanded an unknown amount of ransom as well as freedom for six Somalis captured by French forces April 11 during the rescue of 30 crew members from another hijacked French pleasure craft, the Ponant. The six have been held since then in a French prison.
French officials said the six prisoners taken in the latest operation were put aboard a nearby French frigate, the Courbet, and probably would be delivered to France for a similar fate. The body of the man killed during the operation will be turned over to Somali authorities, they added.
Somalia has been without an effective national government since 1991. Sarkozy said piracy has risen to an intolerable level off the Horn of Africa since the collapse of the Somali state and must be dealt with in cooperation with other foreign governments. Up to 150 hostages from more than a dozen ships are being held, most of them in Eyl awaiting the outcome of ransom negotiations.
"The world cannot accept this," Sarkozy declared, referring to the surge in piracy as a "real industry of crime."
A Hong Kong-registered oil tanker with 22 crew members aboard was fired on Monday by unidentified gunmen in a fast boat, for instance, and rocket-propelled grenades were fired at a French tuna-fishing boat several days earlier more than 450 miles offshore. Both craft continued on their way.
European Union foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels on Monday, created a crisis group to deal with future hijackings. They also pledged to work toward forming a European naval force to patrol the area. That seemed a distant goal, as the union's 27 governments would first have to work out a chain of command, a strategy and rules of engagement.