Spanish troops from warship Galicia have stormed a pirate skiff in the Gulf of Aden and rescued a French hostage sailor, Evelyne Colombo, missing from her yacht Tribal Kat. It has now been confirmed that her husband, Christian Colombo, a former French navy crewman, was killed during the attack and his body dumped overboard. The families have been informed. Contrary to earlier reports from Yemen authorities, there appear to have been no other crew on board.
The Colombos were experienced sailors and had been sailing their 17metre catamaran on a round world cruise since 2008.
A German warship, the FGS Bayern, had found the couple's yacht, adrift in waters off Yemen on Thursday after it had responded to a distress call. There was no-one on board and the EU Atalanta naval command launched an air and sea search for the attackers. French officials said there were signs of a struggle on board the yacht, with blood stains and bullet holes. The yacht was towed to Djibouti to be studied by agents from the DGSE spy agency.
The Spanish defence ministry statement the Galicia had detected a skiff 'engaged in activities related to piracy while it was on a surveillance mission off the Somali coast.'
When the skiff ignored an order to stop, the commander of the Galicia ordered his men to open fire. At that time, it was discovered that they had a hostage on board, who was a woman.
The amphibious ship proceeded to intercept the pirate vessel. The operation involved a helicopter and naval warfare team, who fired on the engine of the boat, to disable it.
Following an exchange of fire, the pirate ship sank and the Spanish troops rescued the hostage.
'After getting her to safety, they proceeded to the arrest seven pirates.'
'They knew they were taking a risk and everyone advised them not to go,' a relative told Agence France Presse (AFP) after the event. One of the couple's daughters, Emilie, posted a message of concern on the blog they were keeping of their high seas adventure.
Colombo's friend Gerard Navarin, holder of a world record speed in a catamaran in 1997 together with Christian, said, 'The last I heard from Christian was around a month ago. He was south of Egypt and heading for Malaysia,' said
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. A second yacht went missing at around the same time as the Tribal Kat, but there are conflicting reports about its fate, Yemeni authorities claiming that they rescued a couple who sounded a May Day.
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 ransom for their release.
According to the watchdog Ecoterra, at least 50 vessels and at least 528 hostages are being held by Somali pirates, despite constant patrols by warships from several world powers.
A crew of 30 on luxury yacht Le Ponant were attacked in September 2008 as it headed through the Gulf of Aden. A ransom was paid, but French commandos later ambushed the pirates, killed one, captured six more and recovered the cash.
In April 2009, another French yacht Tanit was seized with a couple and their three-year-old son on board. This time special forces troops intervened when the boat was still at sea. In the ensuing gunbattle a French bullet accidentally killed the skipper of the yacht, Florent Lemaçon, but saved his wife and child. Two pirates were also killed, and the rest captured.
The latest attack on the French yacht came the same week seven crew members from a Danish yacht were released after a rumoured $3 million ransom was paid. A $1 million ransom was also believed to be paid last year to free a British couple also seized from their yacht.
Some analysts worry that Somali pirates may increasingly turn to seizing high-value Western hostages from yachts, as well as hijacking large merchant vessels plying some of the world's busiest shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia.
For years now, all advice from authorities, including the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), has been against cruising sailors transiting the region, and this advice intensified after the murder of four American sailors earlier this year. However, information is still posted on the web giving information about the best routes and contacts for Naval and government authorities for those skippers who decide to take the risk.