French couple recounts Somali pirate assault
A French couple told Monday how a well-armed pirate flotilla burst out of thick yellow fog in the Gulf of Aden and closed in on their lonely yacht, as the alleged gunmen's trial continued in France.
French commandos seized six alleged Somali buccaneers from Indian Ocean waters in 2008 after tracking down the gang holding the middle-aged couple, Bernadette and Jean-Yves Delanne, aboard their yacht the Carre d'As.
The six, young men aged between 21 and 36, now languish in a French prison, and face a life behind bars far from their war-torn homeland if convicted. Friday saw their alleged victims testify for the first time.
"There was a sort of ochre-coloured fog in the Gulf of Aden, the sea was calm," 63-year-old Bernadette said, recounting how the couple arrived in the notoriously dangerous waters on September 2, 2008.
Bernadette and Jean-Yves, also 63, were experienced sailors from the French Pacific island territory of Tahiti, bringing the Carre d'As towards the gulf, a choke-point on the route to the Suez Canal, home from Australia.
They told of how a first, small skiff with a 40 horsepower outboard and only three pirates on board surged out of the gloom and stormed towards them.
Jean-Yves manoeuvred to try to lose their pursuers, but the launch rammed them. "I was very scared. I screamed. I thought my husband would be gunned down," declared Bernadette, a dynamic, bespectacled little blonde.
One of the boarding party fell in the ocean, but a slight man, "barely 40 kilos" (88 pounds) jumped aboard the Carre d'As and fired at least one shot.
Almost immediately a second launch arrived, along with the pirate's so-called "mother ship", which the couple said resembled a whaler, each carrying pirates armed with "rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers."
Ten gunmen boarded the yacht. One understood navigation and took the helm, plonking a compass down and declaring a 120 degree bearing, in other words: "Reverse course. We were no longer going to Yemen, but Somalia."
The pirates seemed delighted with their luxury prize, the couple said, telling of how they used the shower and the toilet, used the sat-phone to call their families and took pictures of each other with the couple's camera.
They demanded that the captives cook for them, but did not harm them.
"My husband said: 'We are 60 years old, married for 40 years. You should respect my wife and respect me.' They never shoved us," said Bernadette. Jean-Yves said their captors were kind, apart from "one or two".
The yacht dropped anchor off a Somali village and a local leader -- who has not been captured -- came aboard with his translator Yacub, who is now one of the six confused and homesick men on trial a hemisphere away.
The gang initially demanded a four-million-dollar ransom, but the very next day offered a "two-million-dollar discount", before falling to arguing among themselves for several days, splitting along clan lines.
Some of the pirates eventually decided to move on, setting sail again and taking the couple with them, hugging the coast en route for Eyl, a notorious pirate den on the Somali coast.
There, French special forces stuck, storming aboard the yacht, shooting one pirate dead, arresting six and freeing the couple. During the raid, Bernadette hid in a cupboard, and Jean-Yves in the toilet.
"We did the right thing," she said. "At least one of the pirates wouldn't have given us up easily."
The chief trial judge read out a passage from Bernadette's log: "Saved by the men in black! Phew, phew, phew. Thank you the French army. Thank you Mr. President." At these lines, their author burst out laughing.
The trial continues.
© 2011 AFP