Pirates seize control of French ship off Somalia

April 4, 2008 6:04:32 PM PDT
Pirates seized control of a French luxury yacht carrying 30 crew members Friday off the coast of Somalia, the French government and the ship's owner said. Attackers stormed the 288-foot Le Ponant as it returned without passengers from the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, toward the Mediterranean Sea, said officials with French maritime transport company CMA-CGM.

"The Defense and Foreign ministries are mobilized to act as quickly as possible, I hope in the coming minutes or hours to try to win the freedom of these hostages," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told reporters while on a visit to Brussels, Belgium.

He did not elaborate. France has considerable military resources in the region, including a base in Djibouti and a naval flotilla sailing in the Indian Ocean.

A military spokesman said later that a French warship, the frigate Le Commandant Bouan, had been ordered to track the yacht. A helicopter from the Canadian warship Charlottetown also was dispatched, Cmdr. Christophe Prazuck said.

He declined to say if any military operation might be planned, and said he did not know the exact location of the yacht.

The Ponant was in the high seas in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean, the French Foreign Ministry said. At least some of the crew members are French, it said.

"French authorities are handling the situation," Jean-Emmanuel Sauvee, managing director of La Compagnie des Iles du Ponant, a subsidiary of CMA-CGM. The company did not want to comment further for fear of endangering the hostages, he said.

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.

The 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 the Somali coast last year.

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.

Associated Press Writer Pierre-Yves Roger in Paris contributed to this report.