PARIS French commandos seized six pirates in Somalia on Friday during a daring helicopter raid launched shortly after the bandits had released the 30-strong crew of a luxury yacht hijacked last week.
French officials said the owners of the yacht paid a ransom to obtain the freedom of the crew and as soon as it was clear that they were all safe, the commandos went into action aboard helicopters to track down the pirates.
A district commissioner in Somalia told Reuters that five local people had died in the attack, but the French military denied killing anyone in their daylight raid.
"It was an intervention not a pulverization," General Jean-Louis Georgelin, head of the armed forces general staff told a news conference in Paris.
Georgelin said the French military tracked the pirates, believed to be Somali fishermen, after they made landfall and moved in when they saw some of the gang getting away in a car.
A sniper in one helicopter shot out the car engine while another helicopter dropped off three French soldiers who captured the six pirates and hauled them off to French navy helicopter carrier waiting off the Somali coast.
"It is the first time an act of piracy in this area has been resolved so quickly ... and it is also the first time that some of the pirates have been apprehended," Admiral Edouard Guillard told the news conference.
Georgelin said no public money was paid to free the hostages but he indicated that the ships owner had paid a ransom, part of which was found with the escaping pirates.
"When we captured the pirates we also recovered some interesting bags," he said.
French media reported that $2 million was paid by the owners, but family members who met President Nicolas Sarkozy said they were simply relieved that the hostages were free.
"We don't know how much they paid and really, we don't want to know," Karim Meghoufel, whose brother-in-law was the yacht's chief pastry chef, told reporters at the Elysee Palace.
Around 12 pirates grabbed the three-masted yacht, the Ponant, last Friday, about 850 km out to sea in the Gulf of Aden. They then sailed the boat to the Somali coast, eventually mooring at Garaad, near the town of Eyl.
The French navy sent 2 boats to the area, with 4 or 5 helicopters on board and around 50 commandos. A French admiral was also parachuted into the sea and picked up by the task force to help lead the operation.
The Foreign Ministry said the crew, 22 of whom are French, would be repatriated as soon as possible. Most of the other crew members came from Ukraine and the Philippines.
General Georgelin said President Nicolas Sarkozy made clear he wanted all the hostages released without harm, but added that the military would "probably" have intervened if the pirates had tried to split up the group or taken them off the boat.
French officials said the pirates would be tried in France. They said Paris would also seek much tougher United Nations action against maritime piracy.
Piracy is lucrative off lawless Somalia and most kidnappers treat their captives well in anticipation of a good ransom.
France said it would present new anti-piracy measures to fellow members of the United Nations Security Council next week aimed at toughening the war against sea banditry.
"This phenomenon is increasing, with the pirates becoming ever better equipped and organized," said Jean-David Levitte, Sarkozy's chief diplomatic advisor.
"We are confronted by a real, real threat," he said, adding that over the last 10 years 3,200 sailors had been kidnapped by pirates, 500 injured and 160 killed.
(Additional reporting by Abdiqani Hassan in Somalia and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, editing by Giles Elgood)