PARIS – France's navy stormed a French sailboat held by pirates off the Somali coast Friday in an assault triggered by threats the passengers would be executed, but one hostage was killed in the operation, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said.
Two pirates also were killed. Four hostages, including a small child, were freed.
In a break with French government policy, authorities proposed a ransom but the pirates rejected the offer, Morin said. Three pirates were taken prisoner.
A grim-faced Morin said that "negotiations were leading nowhere, and the boat was approaching the coast." He said French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave the order to attack. It came at 3:30 p.m. Paris time and happened some 20 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.
The four remaining hostages, including the child, were being taken by French authorities to Djibouti. The dead hostage was identified as Florent Lemacon, the owner of the boat, the Tanit, and father of the family, the defense minister said.
The assault on the sailboat came as piracy cases continued to play out in the region. Pirates threatened to kill an American cargo ship captain held hostage by four Somali pirates after he jumped in the water Friday in a desperate attempt to escape.
In another case, a Norwegian tanker was released Friday some two weeks after it was seized by armed pirates off the Somali coast. All 27 of its crew were unhurt, the ship's owner said. The Norwegian shipowner Salhus Shipping AS refused to say whether any ransom had been paid.
Pirates had seized the French sailboat, the Tanit, last Saturday.
The rescue operation did not appear to be in any proximity to the current standoff involving an American captain being held hostage.
It was the third time the French have freed hostages from the hands of pirates but the first time a hostage had been killed.
Sarkozy's office said the death the hostage came at the end of a two-day ordeal in waters where the seizure of vessels by Somali pirates has become a common occurrence.
"During the operation, a hostage was unfortunately killed," the statement said adding that the four other hostages, including the child, were "safe and sound."
France's policy is to refuse to accept acts of piracy and avoid having French citizens taken ashore as hostages, the statement said.
The operation began Thursday when a Navy vessel contacted the pirates and "immobilized" the Tanit, it said.
"Negotiations were started to persuade the pirates to give up their criminal undertaking," said the statement.
"Today, threats were more precise, with the pirates refusing proposals and the Tanit moving toward the coast. An operation to free the hostages was decided."
The passengers in the Tanit, a tourist boat, had repeatedly been warned to avoid the dangerous waters around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden.
The boat, a Norwegian-made 47.57-foot sailboat with a single mast, was heading for the coast of Kenya when it was seized. The owners, Florent and Chloe Lemacon, had left the French port of Vanves in Brittany in July 2008 on an adventure with their three-year-old son, according to their blog. Two friends had joined them along the way.