French inquiry into rescue operation

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The French government has ordered a judicial investigation after the owner of a yacht taken hostage by Somali pirates was killed during a French naval operation to rescue him and his family.

France’s defence minister, Hervé Morin, said on Saturday it was possible that Florent Lemaçon, the skipper of the yacht which was hijacked on April 4, had been shot by a French bullet.

“We can’t rule out that during the exchange of fire between the pirates and our commandos the shot was French,” Morin said in a radio interview. “There will of course be a judicial investigation and therefore an autopsy.”

The death of Mr Lemaçon, whose wife Chloé and three-year-old son Colin were rescued by French special forces during the operation along with two other hostages, is a blow to Nicolas Sarkozy. The president personally ordered the navy to storm the Tanit yacht on Friday afternoon, after a breakdown in negotiations with the pirates.

Mr Morin said: “The president’s instructions were particularly clear: no French taken to land.”

In April 2008, almost a year ago to the day, Mr Sarkozy was able to hail the safe release of 30 hostages from a luxury French yacht as a triumph for French forces. The president used the incident to call for an international clampdown on piracy. He oversaw another successful naval rescue in September 2008, when marines freed a French couple held captive for almost a fortnight by Somali pirates.

The Elysée pointed to these previous achievements in justifying the decision to storm the yacht on Friday. Mr Sarkozy’s office said: “France has a consistent policy to reject piracy and to prevent its nationals from being taken ashore as hostages”.

The Elysée added the decision was necessary because the pirates had refused a number of proposals including a ransom and the exchange of the mother and child for a French officer. If the yacht had reached the Somali coast, officials said the navy would no longer have been able to ensure the safety of the hostages.

Officials also pointed out that Florent and Chloé Lemaçon, who had been at sea since last July, had been explicitly warned by the French navy to steer clear of Gulf of Aden. In their blog recording the trip, the couple wrote: “The danger exists, but the ocean remains huge. The pirates must not destroy our dream.”

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