British yachting couple Paul and Rachel Chandler had their first taste of freedom in more than a year yesterday as they were finally released by Somali pirates and flown to safety in neighbouring Kenya.
One of the most drawn out and tense hostage dramas thrown up by the surge in piracy off the Horn of Africa was ended by a ransom thought to be in the region of $750,000, paid to the gang holding the retirees.
It was not immediately clear who paid for their release with the British Foreign Office holding to its strict refusal to pay ransoms.
"We are happy to be alive, happy to be here, desperate to see our family,” Rachel Chandler told a news conference in the Somali capital of Mogadishu before flying to Nairobi. “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.”
British officials said doctors were on standby in Nairobi to asses the couple's condition and that the priority would be to reunite them with their family. Television pictures from Mogadishu showed the 61 year old Paul and his 56 year old wife gaunt but smiling and thanking people at the airport.
An apparently jubilant Mr Chandler was seen to stop at the door of the small plane to take pictures of his Somali hosts before taking off. In the last three years hundreds of vessels have been seized off of Somalia and thousands of sailors taken hostage in a piracy crisis that has grown into a lucrative industry. According to regional piracy monitors, Ecoterra, more than 560 people are being still being held hostage in Somalia.
News of the Kent couple's release was confirmed early this morning by Somali officials in the town of Adado close to the border with Ethiopia. While a news blackout agreed with the Foreign Office was underway in the UK, the couple were treated to a change of clothes, a shower and an “English” breakfast of fried eggs by local government leaders.
A Somali doctor who was involved in negotiations for their release and who had been treating the couple since it emerged that their health was deteriorating said they were exhausted but well. "They need counselling and rest to recover from the situation they have been living in for the last 13 months," he said. "But now they seem OK and were happy this morning. They had showers, changed clothes and had breakfast with us smiling."
The couple from Tunbridge Wells suffered a 388-day ordeal after being captured aboard their yacht, the Lynn Rival, by Somali pirates who had begun to trawl further and further south into the Indian Ocean to escape the protective blanket of international navies thrown over the Gulf of Aden.
The Chandlers had taken early retirement and were enjoying a stop-start round the world journey on their yacht which had begun in 2006. They had already crossed the Gulf of Aden, at the time judged to the most dangerous stretch of water in the piracy crisis. After several months in the Seychelles, where locals at the Victoria yacht club had warned them of the increasing risk of pirates coming further south, the couple decided to move on.
The retired chartered surveyor and his economist wife set sail for the island of Zanzibar from the Port Victoria in the Seychelles on 22 October last year expecting to be at sea for ten days. Within 48 hours their vessel had been hijacked and a tense four-day chase ensued as a Royal Navy vessel tracked the 38-foot yacht as it made for the Somali coast toeing the pirates' own skiff behind it. Before the crew of the HMS Wave Knight could intercept them the pirates were able to transfer their new hostages to another captured container ship under the watching eyes of the Navy who decided it was too dangerous to intervene.
That was the prelude to them being taken ashore at the pirate stronghold of Haradheere. Ransom demands ranging from $4-6 million dollars quickly followed despite the couple and their family's protestations that they were not wealthy and clear public signals from the British government that it would not deviate from its policy of not paying.
After initial phone and television interviews orchestrated by the hostage gang in which the British pair appeared calm and told relatives not to worry, the situation became increasingly desperate. Negotiations dragged on for weeks than months and the pirates became concerned that a rescue attempt could be made the couple were separated for long periods of time. In a recent televised appeal Paul Chandler said they were nothing more than “caged animals” to their captors and begged the new government to intervene.
There have been persistent concerns that the hostages could be taken by or traded with the powerful Islamist extremist militia Al Shabaab, or one of its allies.
Somalia is routinely referred to as the “world's most failed state”. There has been no functioning central government since 1991. A mixture of warlordism, clan fighting and inept foreign intervention have resulted in perpetual war and the emergence of hardline Islamic groups in what was previously a moderate Muslim country.
Al Shabaab, an al-Qa'ida linked group, now controls much of south and central Somalia and had pinned the UN-backed transitional government into a few streets in the capital. Regional analysts agree that a solution to the piracy crisis off its coast depends on solving Somalia's chaos on land.