Pirates move Chandlers as militants 'give chase'

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A British couple held hostage by pirates in Somalia have been relocated after Islamist militants linked to al-Qa'ida moved into the territory where their abductors operate.

Paul and Rachel Chandler were bundled into the boot of a car yesterday morning and driven away as the pirates fled the al-Shabab insurgents. The group usually operates inland, especially in southern and central Somalia, but has now shifted attention towards the coastal zones where the pirates have their hideouts.

Pirates in Somalia are holding more than 300 foreign hostages from hijacked ships and it is feared their lives would be in danger if the Islamist insurgents gain control of the area.

The Chandlers, who were abducted on their yacht in October while they sailed in the Indian Ocean, were being held in or close to the town of Haradhere but were driven away when the pirates realised an advance patrol of insurgents was approaching.

They were later forced to walk with their captors through a forest and were thought to be heading towards Hobyo.

"Al-Shabab militants are chasing us," said Maslah Yare, the leader of the pirate gang holding the British couple, in a telephone call to the Associated Press. He said the couple, in their 60s, would be abandoned if the insurgents got too close "because our lives are more important to us than holding on to them".

Yare has also claimed that al-Shabab has offered to pay a ransom of $1.8m (£1.1m) but that his group is demanding $2.5m. His claims were unverifiable last night, but are similar to the £1.3m to £2.6m said to have been demanded from the Chandler family.

Ahmed Salad, a businessman in Haradhere, said a team of al-Shabab militants travelling in two vehicles entered the town at midnight on Sunday before withdrawing.

Yusuf Arush, another businessman living in the city, said the pirates were withdrawing from Haradhere and were heading towards Hobyo. "The town is nearly empty after pirates have left it," he said. "It is calm but tense."

Pirates in Somalia have frequently hijacked vessels from private yachts to huge tankers, holding them until ransoms are paid. As the money has rolled in to their Haradhere base, so, too, has the drink, drugs and prostitution that the Islamists abhor. In parts of Somalia controlled by the militia, whippings, stonings and amputations are among the punishments meted out to people who fall foul of their strict rules.

Mr and Mrs Chandler were sailing from the Seychelles to Tanzania when they were seized from their yacht, the Lynn Rival, within sight of the Royal Navy vessel Wave Knight – but the crew held back from opening fire for fear of hitting the couple.

The pair have spent much of their time in captivity kept apart from each other, and it was unclear yesterday whether they were travelling together or separately. In videos, Mrs Chandler has appeared frail and is believed to be struggling to cope.

Gordon Brown has called for their release, but the Government has stated that it will not pay a ransom to save them. It takes the view that paying will only encourage further kidnappings.

Western naval forces have been hamstrung in their attempts to stem the pirate problem. While they have managed to capture scores of suspects, they are almost always released because of the lack of evidence or legal framework to try them.

Ali Gedow, a man claiming to be a spokesman for the pirates holding the Chandlers, has said the issue for the captors is simply about getting rich. "Money is better than a good name. We don't care if Paul and Rachel are nice people. This is just about money," he said in one telephone call to a newspaper.