Talks to free British couple threatened by media 'circus'

Publicity could derail efforts to negotiate with pirates, experts warn
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The Independent Online

There was mounting concern among security experts last night that efforts to free two British hostages being held by Somali pirates were degenerating into a "circus".

Paul, 59, and Rachel Chandler, 55, who were seized on their yacht 10 days ago, are now believed to be held in the Somali interior after the faction holding them fell out with local members of the same clan.

"It's turned into a hideous circus," said Nick Davis, a security consultant who has negotiated with pirates in previous hostage crises. "The Government has got itself into a state where no one individual knows what to do. There is no one person responsible for talking to the group."

Mr Davis, a former pilot who runs the firm Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions, said it was vital that the hostage-takers had one point-person to conduct negotiations with.

The pirates have demanded £4million to release the retired Tunbridge Wells couple but the British government has restated its policy of refusing to pay ransoms. Private negotiations were said last night to be underway and there were reports the pirates, if convinced the couple are not rich, would release them for £100,000.

Whitehall staff met on Friday at the Cobra emergency briefing room but the prospects of any rescue attempt similar to those launched by France and the US earlier this year have receded now that the hostages are being held inland. There is concern among diplomats in neighbouring Kenya that the public nature of the negotiations, in which the ransom demands have been made to media organisations, could prolong the crisis. In a phone call to the BBC's Somali Service on Friday night one of the pirates said: "If they do not harm us, we will not harm them – we only need a little amount of $7m."

One Nairobi diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said: "This cannot be settled peacefully or quickly in the public eye."

Security sources familiar with hostage negotiations said that the pirate group holding the Kent couple would be fielding as many as 50 phone calls a day and that it may be unclear to them who was actually empowered to negotiate on the Britons' behalf.

Yesterday there were also claims that some of the pirates were now considering asking for the release of seven pirates arrested by a German warship – part of the European Union Naval Force – last Tuesday when they attacked a French fishing vessel.

The last British citizen kidnapped by Somalis was newspaper correspondent Colin Freeman, who was captured in the semi-autonomous Puntland region further north late last year. The talks that led to his eventual release were handled privately and the details of any conditions remain undisclosed.

A German couple taken in similar circumstances to the Chandlers while sailing through the Gulf of Aden last year suffered a five-week ordeal before being released. Jurgen Kantner and his wife Sabine were held in a cave while the pirates negotiated by telephone with German officials. The couple, currently in Malaysia having returned to Somaliland to collect their yacht before sailing on in defiance of the pirates, believe a ransom approaching €1m (£895,000) was paid for their freedom.

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