French commandos rescue tourists held hostage on luxury yacht by pirates

Nicolas Sarkozy

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks at a press conference about the rescue at the Elysee Palace in Paris. French forces have freed two French tourists taken hostage by pirates off the Somali coast

French commandos have stormed a luxury yacht to rescue two French tourists who were being held for ransom by heavily-armed Somali pirates, President Nicolas Sarkozy has said.

One pirate was killed and six others taken prisoner in the pre-dawn assault by some 30 troops. The freed hostages and the captured pirates were put on a French navy ship sailing towards Djibouti, where France has a military base.

"This operation ... is a warning to all those engaged in this criminal activity. France will not accept that crime pays," Sarkozy said after the operation.

Gunmen from Somalia have hijacked more than 30 ships so far this year, making the strategic shipping lanes in the busy Gulf of Aden the most dangerous in the world.

Hours after the French raid, pirates seized an oil or chemical tanker believed to be Hong Kong-owned, a maritime official said. More than two dozen European tuna fishing vessels rushed to the Seychelles for safety, fearing more attacks.

It was the second time this year that French troops had acted against Somali pirates. In April, French commandos captured six of them shortly after a ransom had been paid for the release of another French yacht and its 30-strong crew.

The couple rescued today were seized on September 2 by gunmen who had demanded a ransom of more than $1.4 million (£785,000) and the release of the pirates captured in April.

Sarkozy said the freed hostages, who had been sailing a yacht from Australia to France, were in good health.

He said he had ordered the commandos to move in when it became clear the pirates were taking their captives to Eyl, a lawless former fishing outpost now used by gangs.

Sarkozy said any rescue attempt from Eyl would have been too dangerous and the hostages could have been held for months.

"These are not isolated cases but a fully fledged criminal industry. This industry endangers our fundamental rights, freedom of movement and of international trade," Sarkozy said.

"The world must not remain indifferent or passive. I call on other countries to take their responsibilities as France has done twice."

He thanked Germany and Malaysia for supporting today's raid, but declined to explain how they had helped.

Sarkozy said a French naval vessel would start escorting ships in the Gulf of Aden, but that was not enough.

"I am calling on the entire international community to mobilise and take part in the security of maritime traffic and the protection of people in the Gulf of Aden," he said.

"France will take an initiative in that sense at the United Nations Security Council," he said, without elaborating.

Sarkozy said the six captured pirates would be brought to France. He said he was prepared to return them to Somalia on condition he had guarantees they would be tried and punished.

On Sunday, pirates fired rockets at a French tuna fishing boat in the Indian Ocean, 400 nautical miles (740 km) off Somalia.

Dozens of tuna fishing vessels from France and Spain sought refuge in the Seychelles today, demanding more protection.

"We are making arrangements to accommodate all the ships that are coming in," Lieutenant-Colonel Andre Ciseau, head of the Seychelles Ports Authority, told Reuters.

"At the moment we have 25, but we expect more."

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