RENNES, France – An autopsy could not determine who shot and killed a French skipper during a raid to free his sailboat from armed Somali pirates, a French prosecutor said Friday.
Herve Pavy said arms and other material seized from the boat after the assault may help provide the final word on whether French commandos or pirates fired the fatal shot during the operation a week ago.
The death of the skipper marked the first time a hostage had been killed and illustrated the risks of such raids. Two pirates also were killed.
The three surviving pirates, brought to France, have been questioned and could be charged with hijacking on Friday. A dozen other pirates involved in two other attacks on French vessels are being held in France.
France has staged several military operations against pirates off Somalia's coast. Skipper Florent Lemacon was killed during an exchange of fire between pirates and French commandos.
The French forces freed four other hostages, including a 3-year-old boy, and brought the surviving pirates to Rennes, in western France, for judicial proceedings.
An investigating judge interrogated the three and authorities opened a judicial inquiry into the incident. The three pirates face possible charges of "hijacking a ship resulting in a death" and "sequestration and arbitrary arrest" by an organized gang of five people including a minor, prosecutor Herve Pavy said Friday.
Pavy said each of the three pirates would face life in prison on each of the two criminal infractions if found guilty.
The three pirates, aged 23, 25 and 27, speaking through interpreters, described "the state of poverty they were in," Pavy said. "We will find those really in charge of this organized gang" of pirates, he added.
Lemacon's body was brought to France for an autopsy, which determined that he died from a head wound caused by a firearm, the prosecutor said.
But Pavy, speaking to reporters, said, "No projectile, no metal fragments were found in the body" and the autopsy could not confirm whether the bullet came from French weapons or the pirates' guns.
Pavy said further test results could provide the answer and investigators have ordered the return of all equipment seized aboard the boat, including pirates' weapons, and they were due in France over the weekend. Ballistic and other samples had been taken from the sailboat, he said.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin has said Lemacon could have been hit by a French bullet.
A further 11 pirates were arrested in an operation Wednesday by commandos aboard the French frigate Nivose.
Those pirates are being brought to the Kenyan port of Mombasa on Monday, said French Defense Ministry spokesman Capt. Christophe Prazuck.
They will be tried by Kenyan authorities, according to an agreement between Kenya and the European Union signed last month, Prazuck said.
It will be the first time France has turned over seized pirates to Kenya.
France has seized 71 pirates in the region in nine raids over the past year, including three that involved hostages, according to the French Defense Ministry.
France has considerable military resources in the region, including a base in Djibouti and a naval flotilla sailing in the Indian Ocean, and has increasingly put those forces to use against pirates.
France will propose at a security conference next week to train a 500-strong battalion of Somali security forces at the French base in Djibouti, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said Friday.
The force, and the conference in Brussels, are aimed at bolstering Somalia's fledgling security forces in their struggle against Islamist militants and pirate gangs.