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French commandos free two from pirates

PARIS, September 16 – French commandos have freed a sailor couple seized by pirates off Somalia, in the second such mission this year, leading President Nicolas Sarkozy to call Tuesday for an international crackdown in the crime-infested waters.

The special forces operation, ordered by Sarkozy late Monday, came as officials said heavily-armed pirates had attacked a Hong Kong-registered chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden, taking its crew of 22 hostage.

Sarkozy told a press conference a 30-man commando unit backed by a French warship present in the sector had secured the safe release of the hostages, Jean-Yves Delanne and his wife Bernadette, both 60, in less than 10 minutes.

One pirate was killed in the operation and six others were captured, Sarkozy said. They were to be transferred to France, which is already holding six Somalis seized in the first commando operation in April.

Hijackers captured the Delanne couple’s 16-metre (52-foot) Venezuelan-registered yacht the Carre d’As on September 2, holding the couple hostage for ransom.

Sailing enthusiasts who live in Tahiti, the couple were on their way from Australia to the French Atlantic port of La Rochelle when they were attacked.

Sarkozy said both were safe on board the French warship, the Courbet, and that their yacht was being escorted back to Djibouti.

"This is a huge relief. All we can say is thank you, thank you so much," their daughter Alizee told French radio.

Sarkozy said the assault was a warning to pirates plaguing the Somali coastline, the world’s most dangerous waters for merchant ships, fishing fleets and pleasure yachts alike.

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"France will not allow crime to pay," he said. "This operation is a warning to all those who indulge in this criminal activity. This is a call for the mobilisation of the international community."

The French president said he ordered the operation after it became clear the pirates were heading towards their coastal base in the town of Eyl, in Somalia’s northeastern semi-autonomous Puntland region.

He thanked Germany and Malaysia for their help with the operation, which he said took place outside Somalia’s territorial waters, without giving further details.

It is the second time France has taken military action against pirates in the Gulf of Aden, after commandos intervened on April 11 to release a French luxury yacht, Le Ponant, and its 30 crew.

The authorities in Puntland Tuesday welcomed the French move.

"The state of Puntland encourages such steps and calls on other governments whose nationals are being held to do the same thing," Puntland presidential adviser Bille Mohamoud Qabowsade said.

Since July, 12 ships have been hijacked in the narrow waterway separating Yemen and Somalia by heavily-armed pirates operating high-powered speedboats, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Eleven are still being held for ransom.

Two rockets were fired at a French tuna fishing boat some 700 kilometres (435 miles) off the Somali coast on Saturday, in a sign the pirates are moving further out to sea to evade military patrols in coastal shipping areas.

Maritime experts say many attacks go unreported along Somalia’s 3,700 kilometres of largely unpatrolled coastline.

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In recent months, a multinational taskforce based in Djibouti has been patrolling parts of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, where a pirate mothership is believed to be operating.

France and Spain called in July for the creation of an international force to tackle piracy in the region.

The UN Security Council in June adopted a resolution authorising foreign warships to enter Somalia’s territorial waters with the government’s consent to combat pirates, though it has yet to be implemented.

European foreign ministers also agreed Monday to set up a special unit to coordinate the fight against piracy off Somalia, raising the possibility of an EU naval mission to the region.


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