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Contact established with pirates holding French yacht

Latest update : 2008-04-09

French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner claimed that Paris had "established contact" with the pirates who hijacked a French yacht off the Somali coast on Friday, specifying that negotiations could last "a long time".

France has made contact with pirates holding a luxury French cruise yacht with around 30 crew off the coast of Somalia, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a radio interview Sunday.
  
"We've made contact and the matter could last a long time," Kouchner told France Inter. "Our contact needs to be fruitful and we have to do everything to avoid bloodshed."
  
He did not rule out the payment of a ransom to secure the release of the crew -- 22 French nationals and around 10 Ukrainians.
  
The French military kept up its surveillance of the hijacked vessel as it was taken toward a pirate lair off northeast Somalia, officials said earlier.
  
French Defence Minister Herve Morin said there could be no military intervention unless the safety of the crew could be guaranteed.
  
Any order to launch a military operation "cannot be taken unless there is certainty that this will happen in secure conditions that preserve the integrity of the crew," he said.
  
Somali officials said that the 32-cabin yacht, the Ponant, was seized on Friday.
  
Since then a dozen pirates had stayed on board and it had travelled more than 400 kilometres (249 miles) south, along the Somali coast.
  
"We are getting information that the pirates are now moving towards the southern coastal area of Garaad where I believe they will stay," said Abdullahi Said Aw-Yusuf, an official with the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.
  
Garaad is an area bordering the Puntland itself.
  
"They are well-armed pirates from Puntland region, so they cannot go far beyond Garaad," he added.
  
The company that owns the yacht said on Sunday that its crew were thought to be unharmed. "All we know is that they are well, that they are safe and sound," said a spokesman for the French shipping firm CMA-CGM.
  
The father of one crew member, Thibaut Garrec, 20, called on the French state to "use its diplomatic levers" to secure their safe release.
  
"If that means paying a ransom, then let's find a way, but we have to free them," said Ronan Garrec.
  
Photos of the yacht shown by French media have shown the pirates on the bridge of the Ponant and on two zodiac boats being towed by the yacht.
  
Pirate attacks are among the world's most dangerous and frequent off Somalia's 3,700-kilometre (2,300-mile) coastline. The International Maritime Bureau advises sailors not to venture closer than 200 nautical miles to its shore.
  
The French navy has been called on in recent months to escort World Food Programme boats through Somali waters, after two of the agency's vessels were stolen.
  
The three-masted 850-tonne Ponant, equipped with lounges, bar and restaurant, had been due to host a cruise between Alexandria in Egypt and Valletta in Malta on April 21-22, its Marseille-based owner said.
  
Garrec's mother Valerie said her son telephoned on Wednesday to tell her he was entering dangerous waters.
  
"He told us he was in a pirate zone. We thought that sounded dangerous. But we had no idea we would be getting a call two days later to say he was taken hostage."
  
Somali pirates usually demand ransom once the ship has reached a port. In mid-March, a Russian tug boat and six crew members were released on a 700,000 thousand dollar (450,000 euros) ransom, after being held captive for six weeks.    Somalia, which lies at the mouth of the Red Sea on a major trade route between Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal, has not had a functional government since the 1991 ousting of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
  
It has since been ravaged by civil war, with multiple warlords controlling different zones, while the transitional government, backed by Ethiopia, controls very few parts of the country.
  
The ad hoc government often clashes with Islamist militias that the US has accused of being linked to Al Qaeda.
  

Date created : 2008-04-06

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