French soldiers fire on pirates in Indian Ocean

PARIS – Pirates attacked two fishing boats in the Indian Ocean on Saturday, but French soldiers protecting the trawlers returned fire and forced the assailants to flee, France's military said.

Coast guard vessels from the nearby Seychelles archipelago then chased the pirates, and disabled the engine of a boat that appeared to be their mothership, an official said.

The nationality of the attackers was not known, but Somali pirates are active in the Indian Ocean.

The French soldiers stationed aboard the two large tuna trawlers first tried to warn the pirates away with flares and warning shots. But once the pirates used their weapons, the soldiers returned fire, said French military spokesman Rear Adm. Christophe Prazuck.

All those aboard the French boats were unharmed, but it was not clear if any pirates were injured, he said.

France's government has been stationing military escorts on board French fishing boats off East Africa since July to protect them from gangs of Somali pirates who cruise the waters there, seeking ships to hijack for ransom. Saturday was the first time soldiers used their weapons in such operations, Prazuck said.

One of the fishing boats involved in Saturday's incident — the Drennec — had already escaped a rocket attack by pirates in September 2008, an event that led the fishing industry to ask for military protection.

The two tuna trawlers, the Drennec and Glenan, were heading toward the Seychelles islands after a fishing trip when they were attacked. The pirates, in two skiffs, approached at sunrise, when they were about 300 kilometers 190 miles north of the Seychelles, Prazuck said.

Coast guard officials from the Seychelles disabled the engine of a boat believed to be the mothership for pirates involved in the attack, said Jacqueline Sherriff, chief press officer for the maritime unit of NATO in Northwood, outside London. The Seychelles' coast guard was also heading toward one of the skiffs used by the pirates, which had eight people aboard, she said. No other details of that confrontation were immediately available.

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden soared as the rule of law crumbled in Somalia and organized criminal gangs ramped up the lucrative business of holding ships, their crews and cargos to ransom. After dozens of attacks last year, President Nicolas Sarkozy called for tougher action against pirates.

France is a key member of the EU's naval mission, Operation Atalanta, fighting Somali pirates in the area. It has aggressively tracked and caught suspected pirates and handed over at least 22 to Kenya. An additional 15 suspects were brought to France for prosecution after allegedly seizing boats belonging to French nationals.

France is the only nation to station military escorts aboard its fishing boats in the region, though Spain's fishing industry has petitioned the government unsuccessfully for similar help.

About 10 French fishing vessels are currently under military protection, Prazuck said. Cable-laying ships have used on-board military escorts as well.

Ships pay the price tag of such operations. While they don't pay soldiers' base salaries, they do pay for extras including airline tickets and hotels, Prazuck said.

Prazuck declined to give specifics about the number of soldiers stationed aboard such boats and their weapons, but he said they were equipped with firearms strong enough to give them an advantage over the pirates' arms of choice, Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.


Associated Press writer Julien Proult in Paris contributed to this report.