PARIS - Navy commandos stormed a French sailboat held bypirates off the Somali coast Friday in an assault triggered bythreats the passengers would be executed. But one hostage waskilled in the operation, demonstrating the risks of a militaryoperation against sea bandits.
Four hostages, including a small child, were freed, FrenchDefense Minister Herve Morin said. Two pirates also were killed andthree others were taken prisoner. They are to be brought to Francefor criminal proceedings, joining 12 pirates already jailed andawaiting trial here.
It was the third time the French have freed hostages from thehands of pirates but the first time a hostage had been killed.
In a break with French government policy, authorities proposedpaying a ransom during 48 hours of fruitless talks, but thepirates, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, rejected the offer, Morinsaid, without divulging a sum.
The French also offered the pirates a French naval officer tohold in exchange for a mother and child but that too was rejected,the minister said.
A grim-faced Morin, speaking at a news conference, said,"Negotiations were leading nowhere, and the boat was approachingthe coast." He said French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave theorder to attack. It came at 9:30 p.m. New York time, 20nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.
The four remaining hostages, including the child, were beingtaken by French authorities to Djibouti. The dead hostage wasidentified as Florent Lemacon, the owner of the boat, the Tanit,and father of the family, the defense minister said.
Lemacon was killed in an exchange of fire as he tried to duckdown the hatch, the minister said.
President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the assault when allnegotiations failed and the boat drifted toward the Somali coast --a "red line" France refused to go beyond, the defense ministersaid.
"The president's instructions were particularly clear: NoFrench taken to land," he said.
After two days of talks, the pirates were "very clearlyhardening their position" and "evoked more and more insistentlythe execution of the hostages and the destruction by explosives ofthe boat and their unbending will to go to the coast," Morin said.
The assault -- lasting three minutes -- came as piracy casescontinued to play out in the region. Pirates threatened to kill anAmerican cargo ship captain held hostage by four Somali piratesafter he jumped in the water Friday in a desperate attempt toescape.
The French rescue operation did not appear to be in anyproximity to that standoff. The U.S. Navy was positioning a hugeamphibious ship closer to the scene of the standoff.
In Paris, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Jean-Louis Georgelindismissed the notion that there was any coordination between theFrench and Americans on the two incidents. Both countries are partof anti-piracy task forces and patrol the risky waters around theGulf of Aden and other parts of the Somali coast.
In another case, a Norwegian tanker was released Friday some twoweeks after it was seized off the Somali coast. All 27 of its crewwere unhurt, the ship's owner said. The Norwegian shipowner SalhusShipping AS refused to say whether ransom had been paid.
There were 164 acts of piracy in the area in 2008, 43 involvinghostage-takings, according to the French Defense Ministry. Therehave been 65 attacks so far this year, and 15 vessels are currentlyheld by pirates with 243 hostages in the hands of pirates, theministry said.
France was at the forefront of multinational efforts to protectthe Gulf of Aden, a strategic shipping zone, and the north of theIndian Ocean, operating since December 2008.
France's policy is to refuse to allow French citizens to betaken ashore as hostages, the president's office said.
Pirates had seized the Tanit last Saturday. French officials hadbeen in contact with the pirates since Wednesday. When negotiationsstalled Thursday, the French "immobilized" the Tanit by shootingdown its sails -- thus opening a new phase of talks the defenseminister said.
By Friday, "threats were more precise, with the piratesrefusing proposals and the Tanit moving toward the coast. Anoperation to free the hostages was decided," the president'soffice said.
The pirates fired with Kalashnikovs as eight commandos boardedthe boat backed by firepower from 70 commandos on three Frenchfrigates. Two pirates were killed immediately and a third fell inthe water, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Jean-Louis Georgelin said.
The passengers in the Tanit had repeatedly been warned to avoidthe dangerous waters around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.
The boat, a Norwegian-made 48-foot sailboat witha single mast, was heading for the coast of Kenya when it wasattacked. The owners, Florent and Chloe Lemacon, had left theFrench port of Vanves in Brittany in July 2009 on an adventure withtheir three-year-old son, according to their blog. Two friends hadjoined them along the way.