updated 9/28/2005 1:32:13 PM ET 2005-09-28T17:32:13

French police commandos swooped onto the deck of a ferry seized by striking sailors in the Mediterranean Sea, recapturing the vessel Wednesday and steering it back toward mainland France.

The commandos slid down ropes from five helicopters onto the Pascal-Paoli in the dramatic morning operation off the coast of Corsica island. The ferry can carry more than 500 passengers but none were aboard at the time.

A few minutes later, the ferry changed course back toward mainland France under helicopter escort. TV images showed sailors handcuffed and kneeling on the deck.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin ordered the operation, involving about 50 commandos who had warned the crew of the pending assault, according to his office and a military spokesman.

Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, whose ministry commands the elite GIGN police force, congratulated the commandos for “perfectly” completing their mission. Officials said no violence was involved.

Privatization plans spur hijacking
Union leaders angry over government plans to privatize troubled state-run ferry operator SNCM commandeered the vessel on Tuesday and steered it toward Corsica.

Butler Capital Partners, the private investment firm picked by the government to take over SNCM, said 350 to 400 jobs might be lost in the privatization.

Shortly before the assault, union leader Alain Moscini told France-Info radio: “We are not warriors, as we are only fathers of families. ... We will be arrested with dignity.”

“They succeeded in their big military action. They defeated a handful of unarmed Corsican sailors,” he said afterward.

French prosecutors filed a complaint for hijacking against the strikers, which is punishable by 20 years in prison, media reports said.

The raid came as striking workers shut down the port of Marseille for a second straight day, and protests continued in Bastia, in northern Corsica.

About 200 protesters poured into downtown Bastia, clogging road traffic and blocking the port. About 30 riot police were forced to retreat to a secured road where government offices are located.

On Tuesday night, after the ship arrived off the coast, about 1,000 people swarmed into central Bastia and clashes erupted between protesters and police who fired clouds of tear gas.

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