This undated photo shows Le Ponant, a French cruise ship, sailing in an unknown location. Pirates seized control of this vessel Friday in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, the French Foreign Ministry and the ship's owner said.
updated 4/5/2008 10:49:48 AM ET 2008-04-05T14:49:48

France's military is keeping close tabs on a French luxury yacht seized by pirates off Somalia's coast, and officials hope to avoid using force to free the 30 crew members, the prime minister said Saturday.

Attackers stormed the 288-foot Le Ponant on Friday as it returned without passengers from the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, toward the Mediterranean Sea, officials with French maritime transport company CMA-CGM said.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said officials were "following the hostage situation minute by minute."

"Our priority is to protect the lives of the people on board," Fillon said while visiting the town of Le Mans. "All channels of discussion are open to try to resolve this case by trying not to use force."

France has considerable military resources in the region, including a base in Djibouti and a naval flotilla circulating in the Indian Ocean.

A French frigate, Le Commandant Bouan, was temporarily diverted from its role in the naval arm of Operating Enduring Freedom on Friday to track the yacht, military spokesman Cmdr. Christophe Prazuck said. A Canadian helicopter on the HCMS Charlottetown also was taking part, he said.

Pirates active in region
The yacht was in the high seas in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia's coast in the Indian Ocean, the French Foreign Ministry said. At least some of the crew members are French, and no other nationalities were specified.

According to the company's Web site, the three-mast boat features four decks, two restaurants, and indoor and outdoor luxury lounges. It can hold up to 64 passengers.

Le Ponant was next scheduled to carry passengers as part of a 10-day, 7-night trip from Alexandria, Egypt, to Valletta, Malta, starting April 19. Prices started at $3,465, not including air fare or taxes.

Pirates seized more than two dozen ships off Somalia's coast last year.

Denmark's government paid a ransom to win the release in August of the crew of a Danish cargo ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates some two months after they were taken captive.

The U.S. Navy has led international patrols to try to combat piracy in the region. Last year, the guided missile destroyer USS Porter opened fire to destroy pirate skiffs tied to a Japanese tanker.

Wracked by more than a decade of violence and anarchy, Somalia does not have its own navy, and a transitional government formed in 2004 with U.N. help has struggled to assert control.

The International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy, said in its annual report earlier this year that global pirate attacks rose 10 percent in 2007, marking the first increase in three years.

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