The 30-strong crew of a luxury French yacht seized by Somali pirates a week ago were freed without incident on Friday but French troops later captured half the pirates, French military officials said.
France sent a warship and special forces to the region after the pirates seized the three-master in the Gulf of Aden last Friday and troops were standing by as negotiations to free the hostages took place on Friday morning.
The pirates had sailed the yacht, the Ponant, to the Somali coast, eventually mooring the vessel at Garaad, near the town of Eyl. French officials said earlier this week they believed the group was holding the crew only for ransom.
After the hostages were released and taken to a French warship, helicopter-borne troops tracked the pirates who had landed in Somalia and captured six, Jean-Louis Georgelin, head of the armed forces general staff, told a news conference.
The six, roughly half the pirate group, were being held aboard a French warship.
"The president expresses his deep gratitude to the French armed forces and all the state services which enabled a rapid and peaceful solution to this hostage-taking," French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said in a statement.
Georgelin said no public money had been spent on a ransom but indicated that the ship's owners had paid a sum, at least part of which was recovered when the pirates were captured.
The Foreign Ministry said the crew, 22 of whom are French, would be repatriated as soon as possible.
The Philippine Foreign Ministry said some of the crew were Filipinos and all were safe.
"We were told the French Navy was escorting the yacht to safety. We hope the Filipinos could be reunited with their families by next week," Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos told Reuters in Manila.
Piracy is lucrative off lawless Somalia and most kidnappers treat their captives well in anticipation of a good ransom.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement earlier in the day he wanted to see a crackdown on piracy in the region and a greater involvement of the United Nations.
"The international community must mobilise for a determined fight against acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast," he said, adding that France had already escorted humanitarian shipments headed for Somalia.
French officials had said it might take weeks to secure the release of the Ponant crew, saying that previous hostage crises in the region had taken on average 40 days to resolve.
The Ponant is owned by the Compagnie des Iles du Ponant and was heading from the Seychelles to the Mediterranean Sea when it was hijacked. It can hold 64 passengers but had no holidaymakers aboard when the pirates struck. (Reuters)
Crew held by Somali pirates freed