PARIS – Elite French troops are being sent to East Africa to bolster efforts to free captives held by pirates who seized a luxury yacht off Somalia, a French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Monday.
A team of the GIGN, a commando force that conducts anti-terrorist and hostage rescue operations, is being sent to Djibouti to "reinforce" negotiation teams in place, spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said in an online briefing.
Pirates took over the yacht, called Le Ponant, in the Gulf of Aden on Friday. It was carrying 30 crew members, including 22 French citizens, but no passengers.
A French frigate, Le Commandant Bouan, was diverted from NATO duties and has been tracking the yacht, military officials said over the weekend. An airplane dispatched from a French base in Djibouti has flown over the yacht.
French officials made contact with the pirates overnight.
"We had confirmation that the crew was safe and sound and well-treated," Andreani said.
"Our priority is the safety of the hostages," she said.
French military spokesman Cmdr. Christophe Prazuck said the situation aboard the yacht remained "calm" Monday.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned it could take "an enormous amount of time" to settle the pirate standoff, which he called "a very serious affair."
An official in Somalia's semiautonomous Puntland region, where the yacht is being held, warned the French government against paying a ransom.
"The money could only encourage the pirates to continue their criminal acts," said Puntland Information Minister Abdirahman Mohamed Bangah. At the moment, they have money; they use satellite phones and other modern telecommunication facilities. They are well organized."
He urged the "U.S. Navy and other Western marine forces" to free the yacht by force.
President Nicolas Sarkozy was scheduled to meet with the families of the French crew members Tuesday.