11/04/08 (B443) Times on line / Des pirates somaliens tués par les armes françaises. Somali pirates ‘killed in French rocket attack’ (En Anglais – Lecteur)

Alexi Mostrous

Nicolas Sarkozy today strongly denied reports that three people were killed in a French military operation against Somalian pirates.

The French President “categorically denied” claims from eyewitnesses that French helicopters fired rockets at the pirates this afternoon, soon after they released 30 hostages from a captured luxury yacht off the Somalian coast.

Eight other people were reportedly wounded and eight more captured in the operation, which took place in the Garaad district of Northern Somalia.

“I could see clouds of smoke as six helicopters were bombing the pirates. The pirates were also firing anti-aircraft machine guns in reaction. I cannot tell the exact casualties,” Mohamed Ibrahim, an eyewitness, said.

The district commissioner of Garaad described how the helicopters landed and troops jumped out to grab members of a group of 14 pirates who had just come ashore.

“Local residents came out to the see the helicopters on the ground. The helicopters took off and fired rockets on the vehicles and the residents there, killing five local people,” Commissioner Abdiaziz Olu-Yusuf Mohamed said.

French officials said that the operation was conducted with minimal use of force for fear of causing collateral damage.

The pirates, part of a group known as “the Somali Marines”, seized the Le Ponant yacht last Friday in the Gulf of Aden. Onboard were 30 crew members, 22 of them French.

They sailed 32-cabin, three-masted vessel to Puntland, a breakaway northern region of Somalia. Francois Fillon, the Prime Minister, deployed France’s elite counter-terrorism and hostage rescue unit to tracked the ship using helicopters and a naval vessel, but said authorities would not resort to force.

After protracted negotiations between the ship owner and the pirates, all 30 crew members were eventually released this morning.

In a statement, Sarkozy expressed “his deep gratitude to the French army forces and all the state services who helped bring about a quick end, without incident, to this hostage taking.”

The French authorities maintain that soldiers simply arrested six pirates and flown them to a navy ship. Jean-Louis Georgelin, chief of the armed forces, said a Gazelle helicopter with a sniper on board had fired at a vehicle containing a pirate but that “no shots were fired directly at the pirates.”

“The shot from the first Gazelle was enough to stop the vehicle and get out the pirates, who gave themselves up without too much difficulty,” he said.

Valerie Garrec, whose 20-year-old son Thibaut was among the hostages, praised Sarkozy’s handling of the crisis after receiving a call from the president’s office announcing the good news around midday today.

“They said they were free and safe and we don’t know anything more. Now I am waiting to speak to my son by phone,” Ms Garrec said from her home in Brittany, northern France.

Bernard Kouchner, the Foreign Minister, said preparations were being made to return the freed hostages to France as soon as possible.

The hostages were apparently being held by the “Somali Marines,” described as the most powerful gang of pirates operating off the country’s coast.

Mr Kouchner on Friday urged the international community to take action to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast and said talks were underway at the United Nations on the issue.