The kidnapping of a British couple by Somali pirates was witnessed by the crew of a Royal Navy ship who held their fire while the hijackers escaped, it emerged yesterday.
Paul and Rachel Chandler were bundled from their yacht near the Seychelles on to a motorised launch as the RFA Wave Knight approached but the Navy was unable to open fire for fear of killing the couple.
The admission by the Ministry of Defence that a Royal Navy ship was at the scene during the hijacking conflicted with an earlier statement which suggested the couple's yacht was found by HMS Cumberland empty some time after they had been seized. HMS Cumberland was the nearest warship to the scene but was two hours' away from the hijack, whereas the Wave Knight was close enough to see what was going on.
The MoD agreed it had been "economical with the truth" but maintained that it kept quiet about the true course of events for operational reasons during a "hijack situation".
Once in the launch the Chandlers were surrounded by pirates, making it impossible for the Navy vessel to open fire without risking the lives of the British couple, the MoD claimed.
The crowded launch took the couple to the pirates' mother ship, the previously hijacked container vessel Kota Wajara, while the crew of the Wave Knight attempted unsuccessfully to head them off. Some reports suggested that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel managed to get within 50 feet of the pirates.
The Wave Knight was crewed by 25 Royal Navy personnel and 75 merchant seamen but, while equipped with a helicopter, has only limited weaponry which is intended for defence.
The MoD was anxious yesterday to play down expectations that the crew of the RFA vessel should have taken on the pirates.
A spokesman said: "Everything was done with the safety of the Chandlers in mind. We do not comment on operational detail but RFA Wave Knight did very well under the circumstances."
The MoD said that the couple were already in the hands of the pirates when the RFA vessel was close enough to see what was happening.
The Chandlers were kidnapped on 23 October as they sailed from the Seychelles towards Tanzania. They are thought to have been taken to a mainland base in Somalia by pirates who have demanded a $7m (£4.2m) ransom. The pirates have threatened to kill the couple if their demands are not met, though there are suggestions that they might want to organise a prisoner exchange, swapping the Chandlers for a group of pirates who were arrested by an EU warship on anti-piracy patrol off the Somali coast.
After seeing the ransom report, the Foreign Office said the Government would not make any "substantive concessions to hostage-takers, and that includes the payment of ransom". A spokesman added: "We are monitoring the situation closely. Foreign Office staff are in close contact with the family and offering support."
Figures released by the International Maritime Bureau showed that pirate attacks worldwide in 2009 have already exceeded the total for 2008, which itself was a record year for piracy. The majority of the attacks are attributed to Somalis.
A multinational force of warships has done little to deter the pirates, whose attacks are increasingly frequent and brazen. There have been at least 163 attacks so far in 2009, 47 of which were successful. At least eight ships and more than 150 crew members are being held.Reuse content