French commandos storm yacht – suffer friendly casualty

As you’ve probably seen in the papers (or online) today, the French yesterday launched a raid to free another private yacht and its occupants from the clutches of Somali pirates.  According to the BBC, this is the third time in recent months that the French have acted to rescue their citizens.

Unfortunately, this time they suffered a friendly casualty.  French Defence Minister Herve Morin said the hostage who died was Florent Lemacon, the owner of the yacht and father of the boy on board.  Four other hostages were rescued.  Menawhile, two pirates were killed and three others captured during the operation.

The operation to free those on board the yacht – named Tanit – began late on Thursday, five days after the yacht was seized. 

Negotiations with the pirates had begun earlier this week, but when talks broke down and threats against the lives of the hostages were made, troops immobilised the vessel before moving in for an operation that lasted six minutes.  The pirates fired with Kalashnikovs, as eight commandos boarded the boat backed by firepower from 70 commandos on three French frigates.

While the world’s attention was focused on another hostage situation – the stand-off between the US Navy and pirates who are holding captive the captain of an American-flagged ship – the Elysée Palace ordered French naval and special forces to intervene before the S/Y Tanit could reach Somalia.

France has been at the forefront of multinational anti-piracy efforts to protect the strategic shipping zone in the northern Indian Ocean — the Elysée Palace said: “France has a consistent policy to oppose all acts of piracy and make sure its citizens are never brought ashore as hostages.”

Most governments leave it to shipowners to negotiate the release of their ships and hostages but M. Sarkozy has taken a more aggressive approach, also launching two rescue operations in April and September last year.

The French rescue operation did not appear to be anywhere near the standoff between an American cargo ship captain and his Somali captors. Pirates threatened to kill the U.S. captain after he jumped in the water Friday in a desperate attempt to escape.

Both countries are part of anti-piracy task forces and patrol the risky waters around the Gulf of Aden and other parts of the Somali coast.

There have been 65 pirate attacks in the region this year, and 15 vessels are currently held by pirates, with 243 hostages in the hands of pirates, according to the French Defense Ministry.

The president of Somalia’s northeastern region of Puntland, the main hub for the country’s pirates, called on other nations to follow France’s example.

“We call on any country whose citizens are taken by pirates to use force, because paying a ransom would only encourage more piracy,” said Abdirahman Farole.

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Given the very narrow confines of a boat of this size, its a great testament to the skill, courage and professionalism of the Commandos that they were able to pull off an operation like this without a complete massacre.  Respect.

*UPDATE*  Further photos of the rescue operation have been released by the French military:

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