Controversy swirled last night around a daring French commando raid on Somali pirates who had been holding a luxury French sailing cruise ship in the Indian Ocean.
An hour after the pirates had accepted a $2m (£1m) ransom and released the yacht and its 30-strong crew, they were attacked on shore by French military helicopters. Local Somali officials said between three and five "local people" had died in a rocket and machine-gun battle between the pirates and the French commandos.
This was angrily denied by the French military. They said that they had captured six of the pirates and recovered part of the ransom, paid by the ship's French owners. No one had died in the raid but one pirate had been slightly injured in the foot. "It was an intervention, not a pulverisation," said General Jean-Louis Georgelin, the head of the armed forces general staff.
The French government must, however, bear some of the blame for the confusion surrounding the raid. The Elysée Palace had originally put out a statement saying that the hostages and ship had been released without "incident" and without the use of force.
No mention was made of the subsequent attack until a press conference in Paris hours later. By that time confused reports of a murderous battle had emerged from northern Somalia.
The district commissioner of the Garaad region, Abdiaziz Olu-Yusuf Mohamed, said that three French helicopters landed and tried to intercept the pirates after they came ashore. "Local residents came out to see the helicopters on the ground," he said. "The helicopters took off and fired rockets on the vehicles and the residents there, killing five local people."
Abdul Kadir Ahmed, the governor of the Mudug region, said "three bodies have been recovered" from the scene of the battle near Garaad. The French military denied this version of events last night.
Naval captain Christophe Prazuck, the spokesman for the French military chiefs of staff, said: "There were four helicopters involved. A sniper [in a Puma helicopter] shot out the motor of the pirates' four-wheel drive vehicle. A second helicoper [a Gazelle] then landed nearby, allowing the six pirates to be arrested under covering fire from two other [Gazelle] helicopters. We are absolutely sure that there were no collateral victims."
The pirates, believed to be part of a well-equipped band of former fishermen called the Somali Marines, seized the 88-metre cruise ship, Le Ponant, eight days ago. They were tracked to a mooring place off the Somali coast by a French frigate, which was later joined by the helicopter attack ship, the Jeanne d'Arc. A French admiral was parachuted into the sea to command the operation.
French special forces conducted negotiations with the pirates and handed over a $2m ransom put up by the ship's French owners. The raid was, it appears, intended to counter criticism and prove that piracy does not pay. The French military said that it waited until the hostages were aboard the Jeanne d'Arc before the helicopter attacked.
"It is the first time that an act of piracy in this area has been resolved so quickly ... and it is also the first time that some of the pirates have been apprehended," Admiral Edouard Guillard told the Paris press conference.
France intends to put the six men on trial for piracy in a French court. At least eight other pirates are believed to have escaped.
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