France Takes An Aggressive Stance Against Pirates

French commandos last week stormed a boat being held captive off the coast of Somali. France has taken a leading role in international efforts to halt hijackings off the Horn of Africa and has captured more than 60 pirates in the past year.

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Now, the U.S. confrontation with Somali pirates puts it alongside a number of other nations, notably France. The French military has taken an aggressive role and captured more than 60 pirates. And on the same weekend that the U.S. Navy rescued Captain Phillips, French commandos stormed another boat. Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(Soundbite of French news broadcast)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The details of the French rescue operation in the Gulf of Aiden slowly came out in the weekend papers and news shows. Late Friday, after negotiations broke down between French officials and pirates holding two couples and a 3-year-old boy hostage on a sailboat, President Nicolas Sarkozy personally ordered the commando operation to go ahead. Chief of Staff General Jean-Louis Georgelin described it in a news conference hours later.

General JEAN-LOUIS GEORGELIN (France Chief of Staff): (Through translator) As soon as there were three pirates visible on the deck, we neutralized them and simultaneously sent an assault vessel to take the boat over in less than 20 seconds.

BEARDSLEY: Commandos stormed the boat from a French Navy frigate, rescuing every hostage but one. The boat's skipper, and father of the 3-year-old child, was killed in a shootout. French officials said they deeply regret the death but had no choice but to act. There was a child on board, the pirates were becoming increasing menacing toward their captives, and even though the boat's sails had been shot down, it was drifting quickly towards shore. Defense Department spokesman Captain Christoff Pazook(ph) says that would have created a whole other nightmare scenario.

Captain CHRISTOFF PAZOOK (French Defense Department Spokesman): We know that things are very complicated ashore. The pirate gangs exchange hostages. They can be sold, and it remains our red line. We will not allow a French citizen to be taken ashore.

BEARDSLEY: In the last year, French forces have mounted three major rescue operations in the Gulf of Aden.

(Soundbite of French TV broadcast)

BEARDSLEY: In one dazzling raid broadcast on television, black-clad commandos were lowered onto a cruise-ship deck from ropes dropping out of helicopters. A hundred and sixty-four ships were captured last year by pirates off the coast of Somalia, and more than 200 hostages are still being held. In a radio interview, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said France is constantly warning vessels about traveling in the area.

Mr. HERVE MORIN (French Defense Minister): (Through translator) Every time a boat goes near this zone, we warn them of the dangers. And this latest sailboat had been warned several times to stay away.

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy has taken an aggressive stance in fighting the pirates and says that France will not be blackmailed. He helped push through a United Nations resolution last year authorizing force to combat them. European nations, led by France and Britain, have made the fight against piracy off the East African coast a major priority, and have supplied considerable naval assets to it.

The EU also signed an agreement with the Kenyan government to prosecute captured pirates. Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau, says these aggressive measures account for the decrease in pirate attacks this year.

Mr. POTTENGAL MUKUNDAN (International Maritime Bureau): In the autumn of last year, the pirates were operating with impunity, with zero risk and maximum reward. Today, they face a risk. There have been a number of pirates who have been caught. There have been mother ships which have been captured.

BEARDSLEY: Mukundan says the ship captains themselves have also helped cut down on the attacks with new tactics.

Mr. MUKUNDAN: Masters of merchant vessels also are now maneuvering, aggressively maneuvering, and preventing these pirates from getting close to the ship and boarding it, in many cases.

BEARDSLEY: The real solution to the pirate problem is a stable Somalian government and peace in the country, says Mukundan. But until then, he says the world's navies should be ready to beef up their forces and begin cooperating in the Gulf of Aden.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

INSKEEP: Stopping some pirates does not yet seem to deter others willing to take their place. Over the last two days, Somali pirates have hijacked two fishing boats and a freighter.

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