French navy in pursuit of yacht seized by pirates

A luxury French tourist yacht, seized on the high seas, was reported to have docked yesterday in a notorious pirate haven on the northern coast of Somalia.

French and Canadian naval vessels and aircraft were closely monitoring the progress of Le Ponant, a three-masted sailing cruiser, seized on Friday with 30 crew members, but no passengers, on board.

The 88-metre vessel was reported to have arrived in the small Somali port of Eyl, a known base for pirates who infest the busy waters off the Gulf of Aden. The French government has mobilised its anti-piracy, naval task force but the Prime Minister, François Fillon, promised that efforts would be made to recover the ship, and its mainly French crew, peacefully.

"We are following this hostage-taking minute by minute. We have dispatched the military means to enable us to monitor the boat from a distance," M. Fillon said. "All channels of discussion are open to try to resolve this issue without using force. We are putting the emphasis on protecting the lives of those on board."

M. Fillon's comments suggest that France is bracing itself for a long period of negotiation. Paris may follow the recent example of the Danish government which is reported to have paid £700,000 for the release of a Danish-registered tug which was seized by Somali pirates in February.

Although piracy is on the increase, it is rare for such a spectacular vessel as Le Ponant to be seized. The ship has four decks and two restaurants. It was was heading from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to Alexandria in Egypt to pick up 64 passengers for a Mediterranean cruise.

The yacht was hijacked by 10 pirates, believed to be armed with automatic weapons and rocket launchers, as it steered towards the Red Sea and the Suez Canal on Friday afternoon. The ship's owner, Compagnie Générale Maritime, said that it had been in contact with the ship and that the crew, which includes six women, was safe and well. It is believed that the pirates stormed the ship by means of a staircase, leading to the upper decks from a swimming deck at sea-level.

Although modern piracy is often associated with Asian waters, the International Maritime Bureau lists the most dangerous coasts in the world as those of Somalia and Nigeria. Since the collapse into anarchy of the east African nation after the 1991 civil war, many fishermen have armed themselves with automatic weapons and hand-held rocket launchers and taken to piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

Unlike Asian pirates, the predators do not attempt to steal ships or cargoes, preferring instead to hold crews and vessels to ransom. Captives have mostly been treated well.

A local fisherman, Mahdi Daud Anbuure, told the Associated Press that he had seen the ship at Eyl, in an autonomous part of Somalia called "Puntland" outside the limited control of the authorities in Mogadishu.

A French navy frigate, Le Commandant Bouan, was diverted from Nato duties and tracked the hijacked yacht as it sailed southwards along the Somali coast. French and Canadian aircraft flew low over the ship on Saturday. They reported that all seemed calm on board and photographed a group of five men in T-shirts – believed to be pirates – on the upper deck.

The French Defence Minister, Hervé Morin, said 22 of the crew were French, including the six women. "We have had no contact with the pirates at the moment and do not know what their intention is," he said.

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