French sailor killed in gun battle as special forces storm hijacked yacht

Four hostages rescued, including three-year-old boy

John Lichfield
Saturday 11 April 2009 00:00
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A hostage and two Somali pirates died when French special forces mounted a daring and controversial raid on a hijacked private yacht in the Indian Ocean yesterday.

Four other hostages, including a three-year-old boy, were rescued unharmed after President Nicolas Sarkozy authorised a military attack on the French yacht S/Y Tanit, which pirates seized in the Gulf of Aden last Saturday. Three pirates were captured in the shoot-out.

The dead hostage was named as Florent Lemaçon, the skipper of the yacht and father of the rescued boy. The French military said he died in an exchange of automatic gunfire as marine commandoes stormed the lower decks of the yacht. Also on board were M. Lemaçon's wife, Chloe, their son Colin, and another French couple as crew.

François Goulard, the mayor of Vannes, in Brittany, the dead man's home town, spoke last night of his "consternation" at the outcome of the raid. He said that the whole town remembered the family who had lived on the yacht in Vannes harbour for several weeks before embarking last July on an "idealistic" voyage of adventure to Zanzibar.

While the world's attention was focused on another hostage situation – the stand-off between the US Navy and pirates who are holding captive the captain of an American-flagged ship – the Elysée Palace ordered French naval and special forces to intervene before the S/Y Tanit could reach Somalia. The French Defence Minister, Hervé Morin, revealed last night that Paris had offered the pirates a ransom but talks had broken down.

The Elysée Palace said: "France has a consistent policy to oppose all acts of piracy and make sure its citizens are never brought ashore as hostages."

Most governments leave it to shipowners to negotiate the release of their ships and hostages but M. Sarkozy has taken a more aggressive approach, also launching two rescue operations in April and September last year.

Twelve suspected Somali pirates arrested during those raids are before the courts in Paris where they will be tried after attempts to challenge French jurisdiction failed this week.

M. Morin said a French naval vessel had disabled the yacht by firing at its sails on Thursday. When the pirates refused to make a deal and the ship drifted towards the Somali coast, President Sarkozy authorised the commandos to attack.

In the other hostage drama, the US sea captain being held by Somali pirates attempted to swim for his life yesterday but was recaptured and returned to the lifeboat where he has been held for two days.

The stand-off in the high seas off Somalia escalated further as pirate reinforcements arrived on hijacked ships, carrying hostages taken from earlier attacks on other ships to act as human shields.

Capt Richard Phillips' shipmates, who fought off the hijackers, are expected to arrive in the Kenyan port of Mombasa today, aboard their container ship, Maersk Alabama. The US Navy has dispatched more warships to the area to join USS Bainbridge, which is shadowing the lifeboat that the pirates used to escape after the failed hijacking on Wednesday.

The pirates have demanded a ransom and have said they will kill Capt Phillips if they are attacked. The 55-year-old sailor jumped over the side early yesterday and tried to swim towards the US destroyer but his four captors hauled him back aboard. Shots were fired but it was unclear if the pirates shot at their hostage or into the air to warn him. The lifeboat ran out of fuel two days ago and is drifting.

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