Fears remain as Briton captured by pirates calls home

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The Independent Online

There are fears tonight that a British couple captured by pirates are being held in a Somali village after their yacht was found drifting and abandoned at sea.

In a reassuring twist in the week-long saga, Paul Chandler managed to explain in a telephone call yesterday morning that he and his wife Rachel were being held aboard a captive container ship off the coast.

But, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown appealed for their release, reports came in saying the hostages had been transferred onto land and had arrived in the village of Ceel Huur, near Harardhere.

Fisherman Dahir Dabadhahan said two boats carrying the Chandlers were met by a convoy of about 30 gunmen in six luxury vehicles, adding: “The pirates opened fire into the air, waving us to move away.”

The retired quantity surveyor, 59, and his wife, 55, disappeared a week ago after sailing from the Seychelles towards Tanzania in some of the most dangerous shipping waters in the world.

Yesterday Mr Chandler, speaking from the captain’s cabin of the Singapore-registered container ship Kota Wajar, confirmed the pirates had attacked their yacht Lynn Rival in the early hours of last Friday. “I was off watch. I was asleep and men with guns came aboard. It was on Friday last week at 0230,” he said.

“We are hostage together with this ship,” he said, explaining that the Kota Wajar, which was seized by gunmen earlier this month along with its 21 crew, was being held a mile off the coast of Somalia near the town of Ubdu.

His captors had not asked for a ransom, he said: “Not officially – they kept asking for money and took everything of value on the boat.”

In the phone call, which happened after people claiming to be Somali pirates telephoned ITV and arranged for their captive to speak to news editor Angus Walker, Mr Chandler did not get a chance to say how he and his wife were being treated before the line went dead.

“ITV News immediately informed the Chandlers’ family and the Foreign Office, and Stephen Collett (Mrs Chandler’s brother) verified that the voice was that of his brother-in-law Paul Chandler,” said a spokesman for the television channel.

Yesterday, after summoning a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee to decide on what action to take, Gordon Brown said: “Piracy and the taking of hostages is unacceptable in any circumstances. We call on those people who have taken the British citizens hostage to release them as soon as possible.

“They should abide by international law. They should release the hostages and the piracy should be brought to an end.”

Foreign Secretary David Miliband added: “We will be using all the mechanisms at our disposal to try to ensure that there is the safe return of these two British hostages.”

After the couple’s EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) was activated last Friday a major search was launched by navy ships from NATO and European Union forces.

Yesterday the Royal Navy’s HMS Cumberland spotted their 38-foot sailing boat drifting off the coast but reported that it was empty.

A pirate called Hassan told Reuters news agency by telephone from the coastal town of Haradheere that fearing attack by the British Navy, the priates took the hostages off the yacht into the Singaporean ship.

“They are close to Haradheere,” he said. “We will be holding them in the Singaporean ship along with that ship’s crew. We decided not to take them to shore. They are exhausted and they need rest.”

The Chandlers’ family have pleaded for the release of he couple from Kent and insist the pirates have targeted the wrong people.

“They are not a wealthy couple. They just wanted to take early retirement, to take a boat and to see more of the world,” said Paul Chandler’s sister, Jill Marshment, 69.

Mrs Chandler’s brother Stephen Collett, 58, and his wife Christine, 52, were among family members who were reassured by Somali prime minister Omar Sharmarke that his government would use its influence to try to resolve the situation peacefully.

Mr Collett said Mr Sharmarke told him pirates look after hostages well as “they see them as trade goods and want to keep them so they can barter”.

Pirates have plagued busy shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia for several years. Foreign warships from 16 nations are in the area to try and prevent hijacks, but the sea gangs are now hunting for ships far into the Indian Ocean.

Gunmen have launched almost daily attacks since the monsoon winds dropped a month ago and there are now currently around 200 people being held hostage in eight ships off the coast.

Yesterday pirates hijacked a Thai fishing vessel north of the Seychelles and took its 25 crew members hostage.