Hijacked at sea – and heading for Somalia

British couple held on board their yacht are towed towards the coast as pirate leader boasts of their capture

A hijacked yacht with a British couple on board is believed to have been spotted off the coast of Somalia, sailing to a port which has become a stronghold for pirates and Islamist militias.

As an international naval flotilla headed towards the location, 200 miles from the African coastline where Paul and Rachel Chandler were being held on their boat, the British Government was facing a hostage crisis.

There were several reports of calls from "pirate leaders" to news organisations claiming they had captured the couple and ransom demands would be forthcoming.

Defence and diplomatic sources said they hoped the situation could be peacefully resolved, but special forces units were being put on standby in case a rescue attempt became necessary.

The Independent understands that although British special forces personnel are available at a US-run base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, additional specialist troops from the Special Boat Squadron, based at Poole in Dorset, would be needed for such an operation. Another option – moving SBS units from Afghanistan – is believed to have been ruled out because they have not been able to practise boarding hostile vessels.

Any rescue mission by force would be fraught with difficulties. Storming by French troops of another hijacked yacht in the region last April led to the death of a hostage, Florent Lemacon, although four others detained, including his three-year-old son, were freed.

Mr and Mrs Chandler, aged 58 and 55, from Tunbridge Wells, in Kent, are experienced sailors who have lived on their boat for several years. They have been married for 25 years and have no children. The couple went missing after setting off for Tanzania from the Seychelles on 21 October through waters in which regular attacks by pirates had taken place. They had talked in a blog of "the Somali pirate problem", which had already delayed their voyage.

Their yacht, Lynn Rival, was spotted at 3pm British time by a helicopter from one of the European Union ships going towards the coastal town of Haradheere, where pirates often take captured vessels.

According to one report a "pirate leader" called Mohamed Shakir called from Haradheere to say: "We have captured two old British people, a man and a woman in the Indian Ocean. They were on a small boat that we have hijacked. The people are healthy and they are in our hands." Another, Abdi Noor Osman, claimed that eight pirates were on board the yacht.

Commander John Harbour, of the Royal Navy, a spokesman for the EU Naval Force Somalia, said: "The yacht was seen just as light was fading. We could not read the name but it's approximately in the right place. I don't want to give the family false hope, but we are treating the sighting very seriously."

Commander Harbour confirmed that the yacht was being towed by two skiffs, the usual method of securing seized vessels in the region. A Somali pirate leader had claimed: "Thirteen armed men on two speed boats attacked this small boat very far from the Somali coast."

A Royal Navy ship, HMS Cumberland, is among the vessels heading for the area. Two others, including a French warship, are said to be closer to the scene. Major-General Julian Thompson, formerly commander of the Royal Marines and now involved in maritime security, said: "Obviously everything possible would be done to resolve the matter peacefully. But all options would be kept open."

Britain's Maritime and Coastguard Agency said the couple's distress signal was activated at around 11pm on Friday night, when they were on a 150- nautical-mile passage south-west of the Amirante islands.

A few hours later Reuters news agency reported that it had been contacted by a man called Hassan, calling himself a representative of the pirates, and saying: "The British people are in our hands now; we captured them. They are all right."

The presence of an international maritime force in the Gulf of Aden had forced a number of pirate gangs away from the area and some have been operating from outlying islands of the Seychelles. American unmanned Reaper drone aircraft, stationed in the Seychelles in a reaction to the threat, flew in search of the yacht, joining the EU naval flotilla.

Back in England, Mrs Chandler's brother, Stephen Collett, stressed the couple had no money to hand over to their captors. "My sister and brother-in-law are certainly not a wealthy couple. I think everything they have is invested in their boat, so if they have been captured then the pirates have got their boat, which is as much as they are ever going to find."

As they left the Seychelles the couple posted a blog saying: "We probably won't have satellite phone coverage until we are fairly close to the African coast, so we may be out of touch for some time." The last message said: "Please ring Sarah", intended for Mrs Chandler's sister. Their father, 98-year-old Alfred Chandler, was shocked and stressed by events, said the family.

The couple's niece, Leah Mickelborough, said they were warned by the Foreign Office on Monday that there would be reports of the kidnapping in the media: "All of us are very distressed by what has happened. We are very distressed... It is such a horrible thing to be experiencing."

Mrs Chandler's sister, Jill Marshment, speaking from Gloucestershire, said: "They don't have any children, so all they do is go around the world. I am sure they will come out of it all right. The adrenalin will start flowing. They are quite strong people, they don't go into things lightly."

But there was also criticism of Mr and Mrs Chandler's decision to undertake such a hazardous voyage. In a yachting forum one blog stated: "The area in which they are cruising is very dangerous. The pirates are now working much further out in the Indian Ocean from mother ships and are known to be operating close to the Seychelles." Another post said: "I hope the people in question are well. However, I do wonder why anyone would sail through areas where the dangers are very well known and well reported."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Mail Machine Operative

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an i...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Day In a Page

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US