PARIS (AFP) — French commandos freed a couple seized by pirates off Somalia in the second such mission this year, leading President Nicolas Sarkozy to call Tuesday for an international crackdown on sea raiders.
The special forces operation, ordered by Sarkozy late Monday, came as officials said heavily-armed pirates had attacked a Hong Kong-registered chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden, taking its crew of 22 hostage.
Thirty commandos killed one pirate and detained six others in an operation lasting less than 10 minutes to free Jean-Yves Delanne and his wife Bernadette, both 60, Sarkozy told a press conference.
A French warship backed the commandos for the operation carried out at sea outside Somali waters.
The six captured men were to be transferred to France, which is already holding six Somalis seized in a commando operation in April.
The French leader said the assault was a "warning" to pirates plaguing the Somali coastline, the world's most dangerous waters for merchant ships, fishing fleets and pleasure yachts alike.
The hijackers captured the Delanne couple in their yacht the Carre d'As on September 2, and were reportedly demanding a ransom of more than one million dollars, as well as the release of their six compatriots.
Sailing enthusiasts based in Tahiti, the couple were on their way from Australia to France when they were attacked.
Sarkozy said both were safe on the French warship, the Courbet, and were being taken to Djibouti.
"This is a huge relief. All we can say is thank you, thank you so much," their daughter Alizee told French radio.
French commandos staged a raid on April 11 to release a French luxury yacht, Le Ponant, and its 30 crew.
The French president said he ordered the new operation after it became clear the pirates were heading for their coastal base in the town of Eyl, in Somalia's northeastern semi-autonomous Puntland region.
"France will not allow crime to pay," Sarkozy said. "This operation is a warning to all those who indulge in this criminal activity. This is a call for the mobilisation of the international community."
Sarkozy said he backed the creation of a "marine police" to secure the region, and "punitive action" against pirates, saying the issue would be raised at next week's United Nations general assembly in New York.
He also thanked Germany and Malaysia for their help with the operation, without giving further details.
The authorities in Puntland welcomed the French move.
"The state of Puntland encourages such steps and calls on other governments whose nationals are being held to do the same thing," Puntland presidential adviser Bille Mohamoud Qabowsade said.
Since July, 12 ships have been hijacked in the narrow waterway separating Yemen and Somalia by pirates operating high-powered speedboats, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Eleven are still being held for ransom.
Two rockets were fired at a French tuna fishing boat some 700 kilometres (435 miles) off Somalia on Saturday, in a sign the pirates are moving further out to sea to evade military patrols in coastal shipping areas.
In recent months, a multinational task force based in Djibouti has been patrolling parts of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, where a pirate mothership is believed to be operating.
France and Spain called in July for the creation of an international force to tackle piracy in the region, which is hampering the delivery of vital food aid to the lawless Horn of Africa nation.
The UN Security Council in June adopted a resolution authorising foreign warships to enter Somalia's territorial waters with the government's consent to combat pirates, though it has yet to be implemented.
European foreign ministers agreed Monday to set up a special unit to coordinate the fight against piracy off Somalia, raising the possibility of an EU naval mission to the region.
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