'I'm just relieved I'll see my son again' – British hostage free after $1m ransom is paid to Somali pirates

56-year-old released six months after Kenyan beach raid that left her husband dead – but will payment encourage kidnappers?

Even as she was ushered across a desolate Somali airstrip towards the small plane waiting to fly her to freedom yesterday morning, Judith Tebbutt's release from seven months of captivity was shrouded in uncertainty. Amid suggestions that local officials were becoming obstructive, her ex-special forces chaperone placed a protective arm around her and hurried her towards the aircraft.

Within two hours, Mrs Tebbutt, whose publishing executive husband, David, was killed by her kidnappers during a raid on a luxury resort on the Kenyan coast last September, had been delivered into the care of British embassy officials in Nairobi. Among her first requests after her hideous ordeal was an English breakfast, delivered in the form of a plate of eggs on toast.

The hasty exchange at Adado, the dusty western Somali outpost whose hinterland has become a favoured hiding spot for kidnappers and their hostages, took place amid concern that regional administrators who had helped to oversee Mrs Tebbutt's release wanted to delay after growing unhappy at the portrayal of their town as a hub for the country's lucrative kidnap trade.

It was far from a legitimate complaint.

The transfer of the 56-year-old social worker from the criminal gang, which had moved her around during her captivity for fear of a raid by elite foreign forces, to the care of a private security company took place only after a ransom organised through her son, Oliver, was delivered in an air drop earlier this week.

Negotiators prefer to keep details of ransoms out of the public domain for fear of encouraging further abductions but the amount paid was claimed by a spokesman for the kidnappers yesterday to have been up to $1.1m (£694,000). Members of the Tebbutt family said yesterday the ransom was raised after "a lot of people clubbed together".

The kidnapping, widely believed to have been a key factor in a Kenyan military operation last year to halt incursions by Somalia's Al-Shabab Islamist group, was the latest in a number of abductions of Westerners by pirates looking to expand their criminal repertoire beyond merchant ships.

In November 2010, Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple held for more than a year after their yacht was seized, were released, also in Adado, following the payment of a ransom put at £625,000. The links between Adado and the commercial piracy trade were underlined in January when a team of US Navy Seals rescued a kidnapped American charity worker and her Danish colleague in a raid near the town which left nine abductors dead.

In Whitehall, Foreign Office and Downing Street officials yesterday repeated the British Government's stance that it does not sanction ransom payments and had no involvement in the negotiations to secure Mrs Tebbutt's release, although it is understood her situation was discussed in meetings of the high-level emergency Cobra committee.

The void between governments reluctant to see criminals rewarded with financial success and the desire of families to see a loved one freed has been filled by a select handful of risk management firms, many of them based in or with close links to Britain, which has built up channels of communication with pirate gangs. They aim to facilitate the transfer of the large sums demanded by Somalia's piracy gangs, who garnered £150m in payments for the release of captured cargo vessels in 2010.

A Western security official with knowledge of the hostage negotiation industry said: "It's not like Iraq or Afghanistan where you have hundreds of security firms running around the place. We're talking about a limited operation. But they do the job, for whatever reasons, some governments are not willing to do."

Those involved in the negotiations prefer to keep a low profile but one of the companies involved in previous hostage handovers is Salama Fikira, founded by former British special forces soldiers.

Last May, six of its employees were arrested at Mogadishu airport and the $3.6m in cash they were carrying was confiscated amid claims that it was intended to secure the release of a Chinese merchant ship, the MV Yuan Xiang. The men were eventually pardoned but Somalia's fragile interim government kept the cash.

Maritime law experts and those in charge of trying to crack down on piracy, including the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, say the only way to halt the kidnappings is to outlaw all ransom payments. But representatives of the 233 still being held by pirates say any such move would be catastrophic.

For Mrs Tebbutt, such considerations would have been secondary as she was reunited with her son in Nairobi and due to board a flight to London last night. The remarkable composure with which the Briton conducted herself yesterday cracked only briefly, when she was asked about her husband's death.

In a statement released last night she said: "I am of course hugely relieved to at last be free, and overjoyed to be reunited with my son Ollie. This however is a time when my joy at being safe again is overwhelmed by my immense grief, shared by Ollie and the wider family, following David's passing in September last year. My family and I now need to grieve properly.

"I would like to thank everybody who has supported Ollie throughout this ordeal. I am now looking forward to returning home to family and friends whom I have missed so very much."

Kidnap continent: Africa's hostage crisis

Edwin Dyer

The Briton, in 50s or 60s, was one of four European tourists kidnapped in Niger in January 2009 and taken to northern Mali. His captors, from al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb, demanded the release of the radical cleric Abu Qatada. Mr Dyer was executed – reportedly beheaded – six months later. The British Government's refusal to pay ransoms was criticised when two of his fellow hostages were released after payments were made.

 

Paul and Rachel Chandler

The retired couple from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, were kidnapped by Somali pirates in October 2009 as they sailed their yacht Lynn Rival from the Seychelles to Tanzania. They were held for more than a year until a £1m ransom was paid to secure their release, in a deal brokered by a Somali-born former London cabbie, Dahir Kadiye, 56.

Bruno Pelizzari and Debbie Calitz

The South African couple, aged 52 and 49, respectively, were sailing from Tanzania to their home in Durban when they were seized at gunpoint in October 2010. They are still hostages. Relatives have been trying to raise a ransom and contacts have been made with their kidnappers. Reports last month suggested that they had been "sold" to a separate pirate gang.

 

Chris McManus

Mr McManus, left, 28, an engineer from Oldham, and his Italian colleague Franco Lamolinara were killed this month when a rescue bid by British special forces and Nigerian troops went wrong. The men were seized in Nigeria nine months earlier by a faction of the Islamist sect Boko Haram. The British Government claims the captors never made coherent demands for their release.

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