Death on the high seas as pirates put to the sword
A daring French commando raid brought a five-day hostage crisis to a bloody end
Matthew Campbell in Paris
PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the rescue mission off the Somali coast that
ended in tragedy when a young French yachtsman was killed as commandos
stormed a vessel being held by pirates, releasing his wife and
For the first time yesterday, details emerged of an extraordinary rescue
operation piloted from the Elysée Palace. It involved three French warships,
a German frigate and the airdrop of dozens of French commandos some 400
miles off the African coast.
After two successful armed assaults to save citizens from yachts in the same
waters last year, Sarkozy’s luck appears to have run out. Florent Lemaçon, a
28-year-old computer programmer from Brittany, was shot dead as his wife,
their son and two friends were rescued from their yacht.
The drama, in which two pirates were killed and three taken prisoner, is
certain to raise questions about the muscular approach adopted by “Sarko”,
the “omnipresident” who relishes the role of commander-in-chief. It may also
give pause to America’s military, which was threatening action yesterday
against pirates holding a US captain who had thwarted their efforts to
hijack his container ship.
Hervé Morin, the French defence minister, said yesterday that he could not
rule out the possibility that Lemaçon, described by friends as an “idealist”
intent on escaping the rat race, was killed by a French bullet as commandos
boarded his yacht, the Tanit. The 36ft craft had been heading towards the
Kenyan port of Mombasa when it was seized by pirates on April 4, 400 miles
off Ras Hafun in northeastern Somalia.
It emerged yesterday that Sarkozy had dispatched 50 commandos from France to a
French base at Djibouti, on the “horn” of Africa, on Thursday, in readiness
for the assault.
Joined locally by 20 more commandos, they parachuted from a Hercules plane
into the sea, to be picked up by three French warships that had been
tracking the pirates, together with a German frigate equipped with hospital
Somali-speaking intelligence operatives had joined negotiations with the
pirates on Wednesday, but found them “intransigent”.
On Thursday shots were fired at the Tanit to disable its sails: the French
were determined to prevent the craft, whose engine was not working, from
reaching the shore, a pirate haven where dozens of hostages from other
vessels have been held for ransom and from where it would have been almost
impossible to launch a rescue.
Sarkozy, who throughout the negotiations held regular meetings with his
generals in the Elysée, ordered the rescue mission on Friday morning when
the Tanit, which had continued drifting towards shore after its sails were
destroyed, was only 20 miles from the coast. It was feared the hostages
might be taken ashore that night by a pirate speedboat.
The defence ministry said the pirates had refused a French offer to transport
them ashore and had turned down a ransom – the amount was not specified. The
pirates had also dismissed an offer of exchanging the mother and child for a
French soldier. Instead, they were overheard discussing using explosives to
blow up the yacht.
After Sarkozy had given his order there was a delay in executing it. “We
waited until three of the five pirates appeared on the deck,” General
Jean-Louis Georgelin, the army chief of staff, told Le Journal du Dimanche,
the French newspaper.
French snipers opened fire, instantly killing two of the pirates. Another was
said to have fallen overboard. Some 60 commandos then boarded Zodiac
dinghies and approached the yacht. Only eight went aboard, guns at the
Chloé, Lemaçon’s wife, and Colin, their three-year-old son, were rescued from
a cabin in the stern of the craft. Dorian Pierre and Steven Ménoret, friends
of the Lemaçons, were rescued from a cabin in the bow.
The two remaining pirates were hiding below deck where Lemaçon, the captain,
was being held separately from the others. They began to fire their
Kalashnikov assault rifles up through the deck, prompting return fire from
the French troops preparing to rush down the companionway.
The pirates were quickly overpowered. The mission had taken only six minutes.
The survivors are being flown to Paris today aboard an aircraft chartered by
the defence ministry. They will be invited to a meeting in the Elysée with
Sarkozy. He has offered his condolences for the death of Lemaçon.
“Sadly, a hostage died,” said a statement from Sarkozy’s office. It emphasised
the president’s “determination not to give in to blackmail and to defeat the
An autopsy was being conducted as well as an official investigation to
determine whether Lemaçon had been killed by French troops or by his
“A zero-risk operation of this nature does not exist,” said Morin, who
called the assault the “most feasible solution”.
He went on: “I think it was the best decision possible, the pirates absolutely
wanted to take the hostages to the Somalian coast and as soon as that
happened we would no longer be able to assure control of them or assure
Whoever was to blame, the death is likely to stir up emotions in France: the
family’s travels from their native Brittany had been followed by many on an
internet website. It described their endless difficulties in renovating an
old boat on a limited budget.
They set off from Vannes on the Brittany coast in July last year, chronicling
their leisurely path down the Spanish coast and into the Mediterranean. They
were plagued by repeated mechanical mishaps, including the failure of their
engine, but called it a “dream” voyage “to escape consumer society”.
They wanted to visit Kenya and the “spice island” of Zanzibar off the
Tanzanian coast. They had also spoken of travelling on to the Seychelles.
In Egypt, while crossing the Suez Canal, they happened to bump into a French
couple whose yacht, the 50ft Carré d’As, had been seized during September
2008 by pirates who had demanded a ransom of ¤1m (then £800,000). The couple
were freed in a daring rescue mission by French frogmen in which one pirate
was killed and six were captured. No ransom was paid.
Sarkozy had also ordered an assault to free the 30 crew members — including 22
French citizens — of the Ponant, a 289ft luxury yacht which had been seized
the previous April with no passengers on board.
In that operation, French troops later captured six of the 12 pirates after
pursuing them ashore in helicopters and recovered some of the $2m (then £1m)
ransom. All the captured pirates have been taken to Paris where they are
awaiting trial. The latest three to be captured will soon join them.
The Lemaçons were not to be deterred by the risks. In their blog they
described the other couple’s account of being held hostage as “impressive”
but also “reassuring” because it was clear to them that the
pirates were motivated more by money than any interest in harming westerners.
“The danger exists,” Lemaçon wrote in his blog, “and it has probably grown in
the course of these past few months, but the ocean is vast. The pirates must
not be allowed to annihilate our dream.”
Two friends came out to join them in Yemen as “reinforcements” for the
dangerous part of the journey. Lemaçon was in regular contact with French
naval vessels as they approached the Gulf of Aden.
According to the defence ministry, the Tanit was warned, in no uncertain
terms, to stay away from the region. “They were told that it would be
reckless in the extreme to attempt the trip down to Kenya,” said a defence
ministry spokesman. “They were told that the threat from pirates was greater
than ever. Frankly, it is baffling to us that the warnings were not heeded.”
Lemaçon’s father has denied that any such warnings were given. He says his son
was an experienced sailor who had mentioned “friendly contacts” with the
captain of the Floréal, a French frigate taking part in the European Union’s
anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.
He says the advice from the navy was simply to avoid the shipping lanes and to
stay far out to sea. In his last entry in the blog, Lemaçon says another
safety measure they had decided upon was to turn off all lights at night.
But such precautions have failed to save even the biggest freighters from
the ransom hunters in Somali waters.
Among the pirates’ prize catches last year were a Saudi supertanker carrying
2m barrels of oil and a Ukrainian ship laden with 33 tanks.
The pirates had started off as fishermen. But taking advantage of the anarchy
that has plagued Somalia ever since warlords toppled Mohamed Siad Barre, the
former dictator, in 1991, they have run rings around the European warships
plying the Gulf of Aden in a bid to protect shipping.
The pirates, who use grappling hooks to clamber their way onto the decks of
cargo ships, hold some 250 hostages, including 92 Filipinos, from 16
vessels. Most are detained in the pirate lair of Puntland in northeastern
There was sadness yesterday in Vannes. François Goulard, the mayor, said
“there was something idealistic about that couple”, adding that he had been
“devastated” by the news of Lemaçon’s death: “I knew that an intervention
was possible but I never expected it to end like this.”
“He was a serious sailor who carefully prepared his trip,” said Michel Petit,
president of the local sailing club. “He and his wife were truly passionate
about the sea and about their project. It is very sad.”
- Pirates seized a US-owned tugboat, the MV Buccaneer, with a crew including
10 Italians yesterday in the Gulf of Aden.