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."

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