, MOGADISHU, April 11 – French commandos stormed a yacht held by Somali pirates in an operation Friday that left one French hostage and two gunmen dead, hours after an American skipper held in a separate ransom battle narrowly failed in a dramatic escape bid, officials said.
As a US force built up off Somalia, French forces staged their rescue six days after the yacht, the Tanit, was seized in the pirate infested Gulf of Aden, French officials said.
One male hostage and two pirates were killed in the assault on the yacht and three other adults and a three-year-old child were rescued, the officials said.
"Today, with the threats becoming more and more specific, the pirates refusing the offers made to them and the Tanit heading towards the coast, a operation to free the hostages was decided upon," a French presidential spokesman said.
"During the operation, a hostage was unfortunately killed. The four others — including the child — are safe and sound.
"Two pirates were killed, the three others were captured," said the spokesman.
Two couples and a child were on the yacht that was taken by armed pirates last Saturday.
French negotiators had offered a ransom, Defence Minister Herve Morin said, without giving details of the deal which would also have allowed the pirates to return to port.
France had offered to send a military officer in exchange for one woman and her child on the yacht. "All these things were permanently and constantly refused," Morin said.
Morin named the dead man as Florent Lemacon, the owner of the yacht and father of the child. He was hit during an exchange of fire between the pirates and French forces, said Morin. An investigation has been launched into the death.
French troops immobilised the yacht on Thursday by firing into the sails, said Morin.
It was the latest in a mounting number of attacks by pirates now terrorising busy international shipping lanes from the Gulf into the Indian Ocean.
US Navy forces are pouring into the region amid a new standoff over the US captain of a Danish-operated container ship carrying international aid that pirates tried to take this week.
Captain Richard Phillips jumped into the water during the night and tried to swim towards the nearby US destroyer the USS Bainbridge, a US official told AFP Friday on condition of anonymity.
But the pirates jumped in and recaptured him.
Phillips has been held on a lifeboat since Wednesday when four pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama aid ship, which was carrying 5,000 tonnes of UN aid destined for African refugees.
The abductors were overpowered by the unarmed American crew, but they bundled Phillips onto the lifeboat.
The Bainbridge arrived in the zone on Thursday and a helicopter carrier, the USS Halyburton, arrived Friday to join the operation to surround the pirates, the Pentagon said.
More US ships, including a counter-piracy task force, are on the way, defence officials said.
A pirate commander, Abdi Garad, said his men were negotiating with the US Navy so that they would not be detained if the hostage was released.
"We warn against any attempt to forcefully release the captain," he told AFP by phone from Eyl, the pirates’ lair in Somalia.
"Our guys are not planning to kill the captain but any attempt by the American forces will lead to disastrous result."
The crew of the Maersk Alabama had resumed command of their ship, said a statement from the vessel’s owners.
"The crew is very resilient and we commend them for their professionalism," the statement from Maersk added.
"They continue to show poise in handling a difficult situation and they remain deeply concerned for the welfare of their captain."
With six hijackings in four days, Somalia’s pirates have dashed any hope that the increased naval presence in the region would dent the chaos their ransom operations have caused.
Somali pirates on Friday released the Norwegian tanker Bow-Asir and its crew, having held it since March 26, its owners, Salhus Shipping, said in a statement.
The Bahamas-registered vessel was carrying 20,000 tonnes of chemical products and had a crew of 19 Filipinos, five Poles, one Russian and Lithuanian and a Norwegian skipper
It was captured by up to 18 pirates about 250 nautical miles off the southern Somali port of Kiasmaayo.
During 2008, about 150 ships were attacked, according to pirate monitoring watchdogs, but there had been a lull in early 2009.
Since April 4, Somali pirates have hijacked a US container ship, the French yacht, a British-owned cargo ship, a German container carrier, a Taiwanese fishing vessel and a Yemeni tugboat.
Some of the most spectacular successes came late last year when they seized a Ukrainian cargo loaded with combat tanks and other weaponry, as well as a Saudi super-tanker carrying 100 million dollars in crude oil.