The French skipper of a yacht found abandoned in the Gulf of Aden died during a pirate attack, a source close to the family said Sunday, the day after the dead man's wife was found unharmed.
Christian and Evelyne Colombo's family was informed overnight that the 55-year-old was killed during the attack and his body thrown overboard before the crewless catamaran was found on Thursday, the same source said.
A German warship found the couple's catamaran, the Tribal Kat, adrift in waters off Yemen on Thursday after it broadcast a mayday appeal for help.
There were signs of struggle and no one was on board, prompting the EU Atalanta naval command to launch an air and sea search for the attackers.
The French frigate Surcouf then detected a suspect vessel and on Saturday the Spanish warship SPS Galicia chased it down, storming the skiff, rescuing Colombo's widow and arresting seven alleged pirates.
The Spanish defence ministry said when the skiff ignored an order to stop, the commander of the Galicia ordered his men to open fire. "At that time, it was discovered that they had a hostage on board, who was a woman," it said.
"The amphibious ship proceeded to intercept the pirate vessel. The operation involved a helicopter and naval warfare team, who fired on the engine of the boat, to disable it."
A spokesman for Operation Atalanta, Commander Harrie Harrison, declined to confirm the death, saying they were waiting to be briefed by Evelyne Colombo.
"He is missing," Harrison said. "We believe he may have died during the assault but we are waiting for the lady to brief us."
A source close to the search said authorities were trying to find the dead skipper's body.
Christian Colombo was a former French navy crewman and the couple were experienced sailors who wanted to see the world and were passing through the Gulf of Aden en route for the Indian Ocean and eventually Thailand.
"They knew they were taking a risk and everyone advised them not to go," a relative told AFP on Saturday.
One of the couple's daughters, Emilie, posted a message of concern on the blog they were keeping of their high seas adventure.
"The last I heard from Christian was around a month ago. He was south of Egypt and heading for Malaysia," said the skipper's friend Gerard Navarin, who once helped him set a catamaran speed record off Toulon.
The waters between Yemen and Somalia are notorious for attacks by pirate gangs, and French yachts have been among the vessels seized in the past. A second yacht went missing at around the same time as the Tribal Kat.
Somali pirates frequently seize crew from merchant ships and pleasure craft in the dangerous waters off the conflict-ravaged Horn of Africa and have taken millions of dollars in ransom for their release.
According to the watchdog Ecoterra, at least 50 vessels and at least 528 hostages are being held by Somali pirates, despite constant patrols by warships from several world powers.
A French couple was kidnapped from a yacht in September 2008 as it headed through the Gulf of Aden. A ransom was paid, but French commandos later ambushed the pirates, killed one, captured six more and recovered the cash.
In April 2009, another French yacht was seized. This time special forces troops intervened when the boat was still at sea. In the ensuing gunbattle a French bullet accidentally killed the hostage skipper.
In addition, a French DGSE agent is thought to have been held hostage by Islamist militants in the Somali capital since July 2009.