Kent couple’s year of terror ends as ransom is paid to kidnappers

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The Independent Online

The British yachting couple Paul and Rachel Chandler had their first taste of freedom in more than a year yesterday as they were finally released by Somali pirates and flown to safety in neighbouring Kenya.

One of the most drawn out and tense hostage dramas thrown up by the surge in piracy off the Horn of Africa was ended by a significant ransom paid to the gang holding the retired couple. There was no immediate confirmation as to who had paid for the couple's release but the British Government insisted its policy of not entering such negotiations remains unchanged.

After a day which began with them being handed over to Somali local government officials and ended at the British High Commission in Nairobi, the Chandlers were relieved but exhausted. "We are fine, rather skinny and bony, but we are fine," Paul Chandler said last night. "We were told on Friday in a way which gave us some confidence. But otherwise, we've been told we are going to be released almost every 10 days."

Earlier in the day at a brief news conference which saw the Somali Prime Minister welcome their release Rachel Chandler had said: "We are happy to be alive, happy to be here, desperate to see our family." She made a point of praising "decent, everyday" Somalis, whom she contrasted with the "criminals" who had been holding her and her husband: "We've been a year with criminals and that's not a very nice thing to be doing."

The protracted negotiations over the Chandlers' release had seemed to reach a low point earlier this year, when relatives of the couple made a ransom payment reported to have been around £350,000, but failed to secure their release. A deal on the second payment, thought to have been of a similar sum, was reached at the beginning of last week after months of discussions complicated by mutual suspicion.

British officials said the couple had been examined by doctors at the High Commission and were set to be reunited with their family. Footage of the captives' last moments in Somalia showed the 61-year-old Paul and his 56-year-old wife gaunt but smiling and thanking people at the airport. Mr Chandler was pictured waving goodbye to his Somali hosts and taking pictures as he boarded the flight to Nairobi.

While the Kent couple are expected to return to the UK today or tomorrow, at least 560 people are still being held hostage by gangs in Somalia. In the past three years, hundreds of vessels have been seized off the coast of the war-torn country and thousands of people taken hostage in a piracy crisis that has grown into a lucrative industry.

News of the couple's release was confirmed early yesterday morning by Somali officials in the town of Adado, close to the border with Ethiopia. While a news blackout agreed with the Foreign Office was under way in the UK, the couple were treated to a change of clothes, a shower and an "English" breakfast of fried eggs by local government leaders. "We gave them a safe place they could get rest and a cold shower," Mohamed Aden Ticey told The Independent. "They will fly to Nairobi via Mogadishu soon and we are very happy with their release." A Somali doctor who was involved in negotiations for their release and who had been treating the couple since it emerged that their health was deteriorating, said they were exhausted but well. "They need counselling and rest to recover from the situation they have been living in for the last 13 months," he said.

The couple from Tunbridge Wells suffered a 388-day ordeal after being captured aboard their yacht, the Lynn Rival, by Somali pirates who had begun to trawl further and further south into the Indian Ocean to escape the protective blanket of international navies thrown over the Gulf of Aden.

The Chandlers had taken early retirement and were enjoying a stop-start round-the-world journey on their yacht, that they had begun in 2006. They had already crossed the Gulf of Aden, at the time judged to be the most dangerous stretch of water in the piracy crisis. The retired chartered surveyor and his economist wife set sail for the island of Zanzibar from Port Victoria in the Seychelles on 22 October last year expecting to be at sea for 10 days.

Within 48 hours their vessel had been hijacked and a four-day search started for their yacht which was on its way to the Somali coast towing the pirates' own skiff behind it. They were later transferred to another captured boat.

That was the prelude to them being taken ashore at the pirate stronghold of Haradheere. Ransom demands ranging from $4m (£2.48m) to $6m quickly followed despite the couple and their family's protestations that they were not wealthy and clear signals from the British Government that it would not deviate from its policy of not paying.

After initial phone and television interviews orchestrated by the hostage gang in which the British pair appeared calm and told relatives not to worry, the situation became increasingly desperate. Negotiations dragged on for weeks then months and when the pirates became concerned that a rescue attempt could be made the couple were separated for long periods.

In a recent televised appeal Paul Chandler said they were nothing more than "caged animals" to their captors and begged the new Government to intervene. There have been persistent concerns that the hostages could be taken by or traded with the powerful Islamist extremist militia al-Shabaab, or one of its allies.

Somalia is routinely referred to as the "world's most failed state". There has been no functioning central government since 1991. A mixture of warlordism, clan fighting and inept foreign intervention have resulted in perpetual war and the emergence of hardline Islamic groups in what was previously a moderate Muslim country.

Al Shabaab, an al-Qa'ida linked group, now controls much of south and central Somalia and had pinned the UN-backed transitional government into a few streets in the capital. Regional analysts agree that a solution to the piracy crisis off its coast depends on solving Somalia's chaos on land.