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French Military Police Mobilized After Somalia Hijacking

By Derek Kilner
07 April 2008

France has mobilized members of an elite military police force in response to the hijacking of a French yacht last week by Somali pirates. As Derek Kilner reports from Nairobi, the troops have been sent to Djibouti as negotiations with the hijackers proceed.

Members of France's GIGN, a military police counter-terrorism unit, have been sent to Djibouti, which neighbors Somalia to the North and hosts nearly 3,000 French soldiers.

The French luxury yacht "Ponant" was hijacked by Somali pirates on Friday as it passed through the Gulf of Aden en route from the Seychelles to the Mediterranean Sea. The yacht was carrying 30 crew members, the majority French citizens, but no other passengers.

The yacht had been sighted off the coast of Puntland, a relatively stable semi-autonomous region in Somalia's north. But Puntland officials say the hijackers have moved into southern Somalia.

Puntland's minister of information Abdirahman Bangah says his government lacks the capacity to go after such pirates and has not been involved in the French response.

"We did not communicate with anyone in France," he said. "Those people [hijackers], they do not call us, they call straight to the owners. And we do not have an ability to catch those people. We do not have much capacity to run after the coastal areas. They are not in our hands. We do not have coastal guards."

In addition to mobilizing the military police unit, France has diverted a naval ship to monitor the hijackers, and has sent at least one patrol by aircraft based in Djibouti.

French officials have said the crew has not been harmed and that their safety is the top priority in the French response. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner kept open the possibility of paying ransom to the hijackers.

Piracy has been a regular and growing problem off Somalia's coast. Somalia has been without a central government since 1991, and since January 2007 has been embroiled in a deepening conflict between an Ethiopian-backed transitional government and Islamist-led insurgents.

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