Navy commandos stormed a French sailboat held by pirates off the Somali coast Friday in an assault triggered by threats the passengers would be executed. But one hostage was killed in the operation, demonstrating the risks of a military operation against sea bandits.
Four hostages, including a small child, were freed, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said. Two pirates also were killed and three others were taken prisoner. They are to be brought to France for criminal proceedings, joining 12 pirates already jailed and awaiting trial here.
It was the third time the French have freed hostages from the hands of pirates but the first time a hostage had been killed.
In a break with French government policy, authorities proposed paying a ransom during 48 hours of fruitless talks, but the pirates, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, rejected the offer, Morin said, without divulging a sum.
Negotiations 'were leading nowhere'
The French also offered the pirates a French naval officer to hold in exchange for a mother and child but that too was rejected, the minister said.
A grim-faced Morin, speaking at a news conference, said, "Negotiations were leading nowhere, and the boat was approaching the coast." He said French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave the order to attack. It came at 3:30 p.m. Paris time (1330 GMT), 20 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.
The four remaining hostages, including the child, were being taken by French authorities to Djibouti. The dead hostage was identified as Florent Lemacon, the owner of the boat, the Tanit, and father of the family, the defense minister said.
Lemacon was killed in an exchange of fire as he tried to duck down the hatch, the minister said.
President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the assault when all negotiations failed and the boat drifted toward the Somali coast — a "red line" France refused to go beyond, the defense minister said.
"The president's instructions were particularly clear: No French taken to land," he said.
After two days of talks, the pirates were "very clearly hardening their position" and "evoked more and more insistently the execution of the hostages and the destruction by explosives of the boat and their unbending will to go to the coast," Morin said.
Assault lasted three minutes
The assault — lasting three minutes — came as piracy cases continued to play out in the region. Pirates threatened to kill an American cargo ship captain held hostage by four Somali pirates after he jumped in the water Friday in a desperate attempt to escape.
The French rescue operation did not appear to be in any proximity to that standoff. The U.S. Navy was positioning a huge amphibious ship closer to the scene of the standoff.
In Paris, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Jean-Louis Georgelin dismissed the notion that there was any coordination between the French and Americans on the two incidents. Both countries are part of anti-piracy task forces and patrol the risky waters around the Gulf of Aden and other parts of the Somali coast.
In another case, a Norwegian tanker was released Friday some two weeks after it was seized off the Somali coast. All 27 of its crew were unhurt, the ship's owner said. The Norwegian shipowner Salhus Shipping AS refused to say whether ransom had been paid.
There were 164 acts of piracy in the area in 2008, 43 involving hostage-takings, according to the French Defense Ministry. There have been 65 attacks so far this year, and 15 vessels are currently held by pirates with 243 hostages in the hands of pirates, the ministry said.
France was at the forefront of multinational efforts to protect the Gulf of Aden, a strategic shipping zone, and the north of the Indian Ocean, operating since December 2008.
French policy on pirates
France's policy is to refuse to accept acts of piracy and avoid having French citizens taken ashore as hostages, the statement said.
The operation began Thursday when a Navy vessel contacted the pirates and "immobilized" the Tanit, it said.
"Negotiations were started to persuade the pirates to give up their criminal undertaking," said the statement.
"Today, threats were more precise, with the pirates refusing proposals and the Tanit moving toward the coast. An operation to free the hostages was decided."
The passengers in the Tanit, a tourist boat, had repeatedly been warned to avoid the dangerous waters around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.
The boat, a Norwegian-made 14.5-meter (47.57-foot) sailboat with a single mast, was heading for the coast of Kenya when it was seized. The owners, Florent and Chloe Lemacon, had left the French port of Vanves in Brittany in July 2009 on an adventure with their three-year-old son, according to their blog. Two friends had joined them along the way.