/ 11 April 2008

Somali pirates end French hostage-taking peacefully

Pirates off the coast of Somalia released 30 hostages seized aboard a French yacht a week ago following negotiations that ended the stand-off peacefully, French officials said.

The hostages, including 22 French crew aboard Le Ponant, were freed ”without incident”, President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement, without providing details.

A French military source said the 30 were freed as the result of negotiations and that there was no armed intervention to win their release. There was no information concerning a possible ransom payment.

The 32-cabin vessel, which was hijacked on April 4, was anchored off Puntland, a breakaway northern region of Somalia.

Owned by French charter company CMA-CGM, the three-mast sailboat was en route to the Mediterranean from the Seychelles when pirates boarded the vessel last Friday.

”The president of the republic announces the release of the 30 hostages, including 22 French nationals, of the Le Ponant sailboat, off the Somali coast,” said the statement from the Elysee presidential palace.

Sarkozy expressed ”his deep gratitude to the French army forces and all the state services who helped bring about a quick end, without incident, to this hostage-taking”.

Details of the release were expected to be made public following a meeting between Sarkozy and the hostages’ families later in the day.

But a French official, who asked not to be named, said: ”Not a shot was fired. It all took place calmly.”

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner welcomed the release and said preparations were under way to return the freed hostages to France as soon as possible.

Kouchner announced earlier this week that France had entered into contact with the hostage takers as the Ponant anchored off the coast of Puntland, near the village of Garaad.

”We are hoping for an outcome which does not involve the spilling of blood,” Kouchner said.

The crew also included six Filipinos and one Ukrainian.

Experts said the hostages were being held by the ”Somali Marines”, which they described as the most powerful gang of pirates operating off the coast of Somalia.

France sent a helicopter and navy vessels to the area, but Prime Minister Francois Fillon said authorities would not resort to force to win the hostages’ release.

A French naval warship maintained close surveillance, with troops from the French gendarmerie’s elite counter-terrorism and hostage rescue unit stationed in nearby Djibouti.

Kouchner on Friday urged the international community to take action to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast and said talks were under way at the United Nations on the issue.

The foreign minister asked the UN Security Council to set up a surveillance system for navigation off the coast of Somalia, saying that 230 to 300 boats were attacked in that area last year. — AFP