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YEMEN

French skipper killed after pirate attack

Pirates who attacked a yacht in the Gulf of Aden killed its French skipper before abandoning it, a source close to the family said on Sunday, the day after the dead man's wife was found unharmed.  

Christian and Evelyne Colombo’s family was informed overnight that the 55-year-old was killed during the attack and his body thrown overboard before their catamaran was found abandoned on Thursday, the same source said.  

A German warship found the couple’s catamaran, the Tribal Kat, adrift in waters off Yemen on Thursday after it broadcast a mayday appeal for help.  

There were signs of struggle, including bullet holes and blood stains, and no one was on board, prompting commanders from the EU’s anti-piracy naval task force Atalanta to launch an air and sea search for the attackers.  

The French frigate Surcouf then detected a suspect vessel and on Saturday the Spanish warship SPS Galicia chased it down, storming the skiff, rescuing Colombo’s widow and arresting seven alleged pirates. 

The Spanish defence ministry said 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,” it said.  

“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.”  

A spokesman for Operation Atalanta, Commander Harrie Harrison, declined to confirm the death, saying they were waiting to be briefed by Evelyne Colombo.  

“He is missing,” Harrison said. “We believe he may have died during the assault but we are waiting for the lady to brief us.”  

An Atalanta statement said however that: “The other crew member is believed to have been killed when the suspects boarded the yacht.”  

A source close to the search said authorities were trying to find the dead skipper’s body.  

Christian Colombo was a former French navy crewman and the couple were experienced sailors who wanted to see the world and were passing through the Gulf of Aden en route for the Indian Ocean and eventually Thailand.  

“They knew they were taking a risk and everyone advised them not to go,” a relative told AFP on Saturday. One of the couple’s daughters, Emilie, posted a message of concern on the blog they were keeping of their high seas adventure.  

“The last I heard from Christian was around a month ago. He was south of Egypt and heading for Malaysia,” said the skipper’s friend Gerard Navarin, who once helped him set a catamaran speed record off Toulon.  

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.  

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 French couple was kidnapped from a yacht 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 was seized. 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.  

In addition, a French DGSE agent is thought to have been held hostage by Islamist militants in the Somali capital since July 2009.

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YEMEN

French firm strikes Saudi weapons deal despite Yemen pressure

Saudi Arabia's state arms producer and a French government-majority firm signed an agreement Sunday on a joint venture to boost the kingdom's navy, amid calls to halt weapons sales to Riyadh over it role in Yemen.

French firm strikes Saudi weapons deal despite Yemen pressure
Saudi hovercraft participate in last year's "Gulf Shield 1" military drills. Photo: Bandar Al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Palace/AFP

The memorandum of understanding between Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) and France's Naval Group is aimed at providing the oil-rich Gulf state's navy with “state-of-the-art systems”, a statement said.  

“Through design, construction, and maintenance activities, the joint venture will contribute significantly to further enhancing the capabilities and readiness of our Royal Saudi Naval Forces,” SAMI boss Andreas Schwer said.

A spokeswoman for Naval Group — which is owned by the French state and French multinational giant Thales — refused to give any more details.    

French lawmakers and rights groups have repeatedly called on France's government to suspend all arms deals to Riyadh because of the war in Yemen, where some 10,000 people have been killed since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015.  

Riyadh is battling on the side of the internationally recognised government against Iran-aligned Huthi rebels, in a conflict that has seen all sides accused of potential war crimes. 

The US House of Representatives this week voted overwhelmingly to end American involvement in Saudi Arabia's war effort in neighbouring Yemen, dealing a rebuke to President Donald Trump and his alliance with the kingdom.

France, one of the world's biggest arms exporters, has sold equipment to Riyadh and fellow coalition member the UAE — notably Caesar artillery guns and ammunition, sniper rifles and armoured vehicles.

OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia has been one of the world's top arms buyers for the past several years.

But in 2017, the kingdom's Public Investment Fund set up SAMI to manufacture arms locally with the fund expecting it to become one of the world's top 25 defence companies by 2030.

Naval Group — which was previously called DCNS — has been embroiled in a long-running graft scandal over the 2002 sale of two Scorpene submarines to Malaysia for $1.2 billion. 

The submarine maker is alleged to have paid more than 114 million euros ($128 million) in kickbacks to a shell company linked to a close associate of ousted Malaysian leader Najib Razak. 

A French investigation launched in 2010 has already led to four French executives involved in the deal being charged. They all deny wrongdoing.

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