Pirates fire at Somali militia

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Pirates who hijacked a luxury French yacht off Somalia last week have opened fire at local gunmen who stopped them from coming ashore in the chaotic Horn of Africa nation, witnesses said yesterday.

The Ponant was seized on Friday with its 30-strong crew as it sailed through the Gulf of Aden. Of the ship's 30-strong crew, 22 are French, and most of the others are Ukrainian or Korean. Six are women.

France, which says officials are in contact with the pirates, has sent a police team to help deal with the pirates.

The group of roughly 10 members of the GIGN, a police force trained to deal with hijackings and hostage situations, was due to arrive in neighbouring Djibouti yesterday.

Residents said late on Sunday the hijackers tried to land at Garaad, a fishing village in central Somalia, but gunmen working for the local authorities made it clear they were not welcome.

"The pirates opened fire, killing two men after the local militia told them to go away," radio operator Mohamed Ibrahim told Reuters. The men onshore did not return fire, he said.

The yacht was now moored at Garacade, near the town of Eyl in the northern region of Puntland, French officials said.

Piracy is lucrative off lawless Somalia and most kidnappers treat their captives well in anticipation of a good ransom.

"The pirates have made no terrorist demands. The act of piracy is motivated solely by financial reasons," a French diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

"The preferred option is negotiation and preserving the hostages' lives," the diplomat added.

Sources close to the pirates said the hijackers had yet to state any demands and thought they were seeking a safe haven before opening negotiations with the vessel's owners.

"We spoke to them last night. They said they're fine and that the crew are safe and in good health," an elder who is related to some of the pirates told Reuters by telephone from the northern town of Garowe.

A small French warship is tracking the yacht and planes are regularly flying over to film its progress.

Asked by French radio on Sunday whether Paris was ready to pay a ransom to secure the release of the crew, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: "We'll see."

The boat's owner, the Compagnie des Iles du Ponant, has told anxious relatives that they were all well.

"The crew has not been ill-treated. They are all together and were able to have breakfast and take showers this morning," the mother of one of the hostages told French radio on Sunday, relating what company officials had told her.

The crew had been sailing without passengers from the Seychelles to the Mediterranean when they were hijacked in one of the world's most dangerous waterways.