Crew of French yacht missing off Yemen: foreign ministry

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A German warship has found a French catamaran adrift in pirate-infested waters in the Gulf of Aden off Yemen with no crew aboard, and their fate is unknown, France said Friday.

Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told reporters the crew of the yacht had issued a mayday signal, but by the time the frigate Bayern arrived there was no-one on board.

"Following the alert from the crew, we asked our German partners to send one of their ships taking part in Operation Atalanta," Valero said, referring to the EU anti-piracy mission off Somalia.

The 5,600-ton warship found the yacht, but "no-one was on board and we have no certainty about how many people had been aboard nor what may have become of the crew of the catamaran."

A source close to the investigation who asked not to be named said that there had been four people on the yacht according to the radioed distress call.

There were "suspicious marks on board" the yacht which is now being towed to Djibouti for forensic examination by French authorities. France's external intelligence agency DGSE is involved, the source said.

While officials would not speculate on the fate of the missing crew, 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.

On Wednesday, Denmark announced the release of a Danish family more than seven months after they had been kidnapped by Somali pirates. A maritime monitoring group and local sources said a large ransom had been paid.

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 ransoms for their release.

According to the watchdog Ecoterra, at least 50 vessels and at least 528 hostages are currently being held by Somali pirates, despite constant patrols by warships from several world powers.

© 2011 AFP

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