A luxury three-masted cruise ship seized off the Gulf of Aden last week is in the hands of the Somali "marines", a loose network of fishermen-turned-pirates armed with satellite telephones and hand-held missiles.
The "marines", to paraphrase the words of The Pirates of Penzance, are the very model of a modern pirate enterprise. They use converted fishing vessels as "mother ships", from which small boats are directed by satellite telephone to menace targets.
They are believed by Somali and international officials to be responsible for many of the estimated 150 attacks on ships off the Horn of Africa last year. Captured ships and their crews are then ransomed back to their owners. Contacts are in progress between the French owner of the 88-metre yacht Le Ponant, seized last Friday and representatives of the pirates. The French government has refused to rule out the payment of a ransom for the vessel and its mostly French crew of 30. On past experience, officials warn, the negotiations are likely to take several weeks.
Meanwhile, Le Ponant, a sleek white ship with four decks and two restaurants, capable of accomodating 64 cruise passengers, is believed to be moored just off the Somali coast, near the small port of Eyl.
The ship's owner, the Compagnie Générale Maritime, has been assured that the crew members, including six women, are being treated well. The Somali "marines" have a reputation for courteous treatment of their hostages, so long as they are confident that a ransom will be paid. Andrew Mwangura, president of a seamen's aid association in the Kenyan port of Mombasa, said: "The size of the ransom depends on the value of the ship, its proprietor and the nationality of the crew. In this case, they will ask for a fortune, millions of dollars, and then lower their demands and everything will go well."
Mr Mwangura said there were four, rival groups of pirates operating from the Somali coast but Le Ponant was almost certainly in the hands of the Somali "marines".
They are the best organised," he said. "They have an almost military structure and training, plenty of weapons and boats, and excellent communications."
A French journalist, Gwen Le Gouil, was held for eight days by the "marines" in December. He said they were "former fishermen, who have converted to illicit operations of various kinds, including hostage-taking and trafficking in people, money and archeological remains. They have no particular political allegiance. Only money counts as far as they are concerned."
France has sent a force of its elite rapid intervention troops, the GIGN, to its base in Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden.