France hopes yacht crew captured by pirates can be freed without force

Sunday, April 6, 2008

PARIS -- France's military is keeping close tabs on a French luxury yacht seized by pirates off Somalia's coast, and officials hope to avoid using force to free the 30 crew members, the prime minister said Saturday.

Attackers stormed the 288-foot Le Ponant on Friday as it returned without passengers from the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, toward the Mediterranean Sea, officials with French maritime transport company CMA-CGM said.

The crew included 22 French citizens, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said. Other members included Ukrainians, military spokesman Cmdr. Christophe Prazuck said.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said officials were "following the hostage situation minute by minute."

"We are in constant contact with the ship owner, and our priority is to protect the lives of the people on board," Fillon said. "All channels of discussion are open to try to resolve this case by trying not to use force."

About 10 attackers continued to guide the boat south along Somalia's eastern coast, Prazuck said.

A French frigate, Le Commandant Bouan, was temporarily diverted from NATO duties and was tracking the yacht. An airplane dispatched from a French base in Djibouti flew over the yacht and all was calm aboard, Prazuck said.

A day earlier, Fillon said the pirates had not made contact with the ship's owner.

According to the company's Web site, the three-mast boat features four decks, two restaurants, and indoor and outdoor luxury lounges. It can hold up to 64 passengers.

Le Ponant was next scheduled to carry passengers as part of a 10-day, 7-night trip from Alexandria, Egypt, to Valletta, Malta, starting April 19. Prices started at $3,465, not including air fare or taxes.

Pirates seized more than two dozen ships off Somalia's coast last year.

Denmark's government paid a ransom to win the release in August of the crew of a Danish cargo ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates some two months after they were taken captive.

The U.S. Navy has led international patrols to try to combat piracy in the region. Last year, the guided missile destroyer USS Porter opened fire to destroy pirate skiffs tied to a Japanese tanker.

Wracked by more than a decade of violence and anarchy, Somalia does not have its own navy, and a transitional government formed in 2004 with U.N. help has struggled to assert control.

The International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy, said in its annual report earlier this year that global pirate attacks rose 10 percent in 2007, marking the first increase in three years.

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