Real-Life Pirates Can't Match 'Capt. Jack Sparrow'

Bandits nabbed, French yacht hostages rescued in Somalian high-seas adventure.

ByMike Lee
February 11, 2009, 2:28 AM

— -- A seaborne hostage crisis off the coast of Somalia in East Africa has ended with at least six pirates captured and all the ship's 30 crew members safe.

A local Somali governor in the region where the yacht was held saidofficials had initially heard "reports over VHF radio that at least eight people were killed." But the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy "categorically denied" that any pirates died in the raid.

The drama began April 4 when a dozen buccaneers stormed aboard the 288-foot French luxury yacht Ponant in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, capturing its crew, 22 of whom were French and the rest from Asia and other regions.

The French government quickly mobilized, sending a seaborne amphibious assault unit. Ransom demands were made. But the Somali government, long besieged by such piracy off its shores, urged the French not to give in.

Precisely how and why the hostages were freed is not yet entirely clear, but a French government official strongly hinted that the ship's owners cut a deal.

Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, the chief of staff of France's armed forces, said the pirates released the hostages Friday after negotiations with the owners. That phase of the operation was calm, with no weapons fired and the hostages brought smoothly to safety, the general said.

The pirates "gave themselves up without too much difficulty," he said.

"Naturally," he added, "absolutely no public money was paid in this affair. … Check with the ship owner. In capturing the pirates, we also recovered some interesting bags. ... We recovered part of the ransom that was probably paid."

So it appears that the ship's crew members owe their freedom not to swashbuckling French commandos swinging from ropes onto the desk of the distressed boat, but instead to the strength of whomever lifted those bags of money and delivered them to the pirates.

Jean-Emmanuel Sauvee, chief of the company that owns the ship, the French charter company CMA-CGM, declined to confirm a ransom, but said, "It's obviously a very delicate and difficult context, and so the only thing you should take from this is the outcome -- crew members who are going to be able to go home to their families."

Karim Meghoufel, the brother-in-law of a pastry chef onboard the boat, said, "We don't know how much they paid, and, in any case, we don't want to know."

The pirates themselves were captured after they had released their hostages. A French helicopter gunship reportedly swooped down on one of their escape cars and opened fire. Conflicting reports about possible deaths or injuries during that confrontation were not immediately resolved.

One thing is clear: The Somali pirates did not have the luck or guile of movie pirate Capt. Jack Sparrow, of "Pirates of the Caribbean." But it appears they had Capt. Jack's' naïvete.

They hit the ship as it was returning without passengers from the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, toward the sea. The ship can accommodate 64 passengers, in addition to the crew, and that kind of payload could have been a pirate's dream.

The Somali bandits also may have been naïve to believe that it was all over when they got their bags of loot and allowed the crew to go free. There may be honor among enemies at sea in the movie world, but the French military was not about to give these bandits a pass.

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