British tourist was killed for his dinghy

Confusion surrounds Malcolm Robertson's killing by three Burmese men as his wife slept on their yacht in the Andaman Sea

A British man was murdered by pirates aboard his yacht off southern Thailand while his wife was locked in a cabin. The body of Malcolm Robertson, 64, was thrown overboard near Koh Dong, an island about 45 miles west of the Satun province near the border with Malaysia, on Monday evening. Reports suggested Mr Robertson was beaten to death with a hammer or had his throat slit with a knife.

Three Burmese men have been arrested on suspicion of murder. Apparently, Mr Robertson had tried to stop them as they climbed on to his yacht, named Mr Bean, to steal a dinghy. Initial reports suggest that Mr Robertson's wife Linda, known as Lindy, was locked in a cabin as the three men fought her husband. When she emerged, she found blood on the deck but no sign of her husband, waved down a passing vessel and called police.

It remains unclear how Mrs Robertson sustained the minor injuries for which she is now being treated in hospital, although a scuffle with the fishermen is the likeliest explanation. She is reported to have said: "They wanted the dinghy and started hitting Malc about the head."

Yesterday Mrs Robertson's brother, John Clee, said: "It was such a stupid, pathetic thing, because they were just trying to pinch a few credit cards and computer things."

He said his sister feared she would be killed too but the three men fled the vessel before being caught by police.

He added: "She's got swollen arms and legs because she was tied up for eight to 10 hours in the cabin. She didn't know what was happening to Malcolm, she was kept locked up."

Mr Clee said the robbers brought his sister up to the deck at times when they needed her help with sailing the yacht.

Police found the three men afloat in the southern Andaman Sea in a dinghy that had been attached to the Robertsons' yacht. A police spokes-man said they had confessed to the murder and were migrant workers. It is possible they belong to the Rohingya people, an ethnic Muslim group persecuted by the Burmese junta.

Television cameras caught local people throwing punches at the suspects when they were brought on to land by police, who dragged them away before further trouble erupted. Mr and Mrs Robertson, from St Leonards in East Sussex, are thought to have been sailing from Phuket in Thailand, where their yacht was berthed, to the Malaysian duty-free island of Langkawi. A spokesman for the Foreign Office said yesterday: "We can confirm two British nationals were attacked off Satun. Our consular team in Bangkok is in touch with next of kin. One of the British nationals has been reported missing and the other is in hospital. We are urgently pursuing this case."

The Royal Thai Navy and police are thought to have called off the search for Mr Robertson's body last night at 10pm local time. Police Colonel Virat Ohn-song said: "We believe from our interview with his wife that Mr Robertson was dead before he was thrown into the water. This is bad. Very bad."

Mr and Mrs Robertson set off on a round-the-world voyage from Eastbourne marina in June 1998. They are thought to have sailed Mr Bean around the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and much of the South Pacific.

Reports suggested that they were planning to head back to Eastbourne this year, and had advertised on a blog for fellow yachties to join them on a convoy to the Red Sea. The last update is from September 2007. It is headed: "Still the excitement is there after nine years." Their relatives are understood to be flying to Thailand.

The waters in which the couple were sailing do not have a reputation for being dangerous and are usually extremely busy with holiday yachts.