Pirates free British pair after year of captivity

Monday, November 15, 2010
British sailors Paul and Rachel Chandler were released Sunday in Adado, Somalia. (Associated Press)

NAIROBI, Kenya -- A British couple kidnapped off their private yacht by Somali pirates more than a year ago were set free Sunday, ending one of the most drawn-out and dramatic hostage situations since the rash of piracy began off East Africa.

Paul and Rachel Chandler looked relaxed and smiled through a small ceremony held in the Somali town of Adado after their morning release. They arrived in Kenya's capital of Nairobi by nightfall, landing at the military wing of the main international airport. Rachel Chandler said by phone: "We are happy to be alive."

Pirates boarded the Chandler's 38-foot yacht the night of Oct. 23, 2009, near the island nation of Seychelles. The couple, married for almost three decades, took early retirement about four years ago and were spending six-month spells at sea.

Despite an international flotilla of warships and aircraft, pirates continue to prowl the Indian Ocean off Somalia, pouncing on pleasure craft, fishing vessels and cargo ships.

They were held hostage for 388 days.

Efforts to free the couple by the Somali diaspora, the weak Mogadishu-based government and Britain had failed until now. The couple Sunday flew from Adado to Mogadishu and after a short stop continued on to Kenya.

"We are happy to be alive, happy to be here, desperate to see our family, and so happy to be amongst decent, everyday people, Somalis, people from anywhere in the world who are not criminals, because we've been a year with criminals and that's not a very nice thing to be doing," Rachel Chandler said in Mogadishu.

Somali pirates still hold close to 500 hostages. The pirates typically only release hostages for multimillion-dollar ransoms.

Conflicting reports from Somali officials about the Chandlers' release said either a $300,000 ransom for "expenses" was paid or that a $1 million ransom that was contributed to by the Somali diaspora was paid.

Britain's Foreign Office has always insisted that the British government never pays any ransom to hostage takers. A spokeswoman said the ministry wasn't immediately able to comment on the release.

The Chandlers do not come from a wealthy background, part of the reason their hostage ordeal took so long. A serious attempt to free them was made in June, according to a Nairobi-based Western official. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $450,000 was dropped from a plane to free the couple, but pirates had been negotiating with different groups of people, and the effort to free the couple fell through, said the official, who could not be identified by name because of the nature of his work.

The Chandler family statement said during the protracted discussions with pirates that it was "a difficult task" to get across the message that the Chandlers were "two retired people on a sailing trip on a small private yacht and not part of a major commercial enterprise" worth tens of millions of dollars.

The statement said that "common sense finally prevailed" and a solution was found. The family said it would not comment on questions about payment to the pirates so as not to encourage the capture of other private individuals.

Somali pirates have made tens of millions of dollars from the piracy trade over the last several years, fueling a building boom in Somali neighborhoods of Nairobi and a spending spree on cars, women and guns in pirate towns.

Pirates set off on small skiffs and fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at passing ships in order to take them over. When they succeed, shipping companies often pay millions in ransom to win the release of their crew, ship and cargo.

International navies have taken a more aggressive approach this year to stop the pirates, and vessels often employ armed, private security on board. But the hijackings have persisted, in part because of how vast the sea is, and because of the high pay pirates can make in a country where little economic opportunities exist.

Somalia has been without a functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

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