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Somali pirates free British couple after 388 days

NAIROBI, Kenya — The retired British couple were sailing the world on a 38-foot yacht that represented most of their life savings when Somali pirates captured them last year, demanding the sort of huge ransom a multimillionaire or a multinational company might cough up.

The fact that Paul and Rachel Chandler couldn't pay a big ransom helped stretch out their ordeal 388 agonizing days — until Sunday, when they were released thin and exhausted, but smiling. It was one of the longest and most dramatic hostage situations since the Somali piracy boom began several years ago.

The Chandlers were welcomed by the Somali community close to where they had been held, and later met with the Somali prime minister in Mogadishu. A private jet then flew them to Nairobi's military airport, where they were whisked away in a British Embassy vehicle.

"We are happy to be alive, happy to be here, desperate to see our family and so happy to be amongst decent, everyday people, Somalis, people from anywhere in the world who are not criminals, because we've been a year with criminals and that's not a very nice thing to be doing," Rachel Chandler said at a news conference in Mogadishu.

She also said in a BBC interview that their captors beat them during their captivity after deciding to separate the couple.

"We were really distraught, very frightened at that point," she said. "We refused to be separated, and we were beaten as a result. And that was very traumatic."

When asked about their health, she said, "We're okay."

The Chandlers, married for almost three decades, are experienced travelers. They took early retirement about four years ago and were spending six-month spells at sea. They had sailed to the Greek islands, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Oman, Yemen, India and the Maldives.

But they could not make it through the dangerous waters of East Africa, where pirate attacks have spiked the past several years.

About 2:30 a.m. Oct. 23, 2009, pirates stormed the couple's sailboat, the Lynn Rival, as they were cruising from the Seychelles to Tanzania. The pirates stripped the sailboat of all valuables and pushed the Chandlers onto a hijacked freighter, a mother ship, used as a decoy to attack unsuspecting vessels, which allows the pirates to extend their range to more than 1,000 miles from shore. The Chandlers had put out an SOS, but the naval ships in the area arrived too late.

The pirates sailed to Xarardheere, a notorious pirate den in central Somalia. The pirates, one named Red Teeth, wanted $7 million, and when it was clear the Chandlers did not have access to that kind of money, the pirates became frustrated and internal arguments broke out over strategy.

In the end, a local Somali leader who had recently returned from the United States to set up a regional government in central Somalia helped smooth the way for more negotiations. Mohamed Aden, who is called president in his clan's area in central Somalia, had been asking the pirates for months to release the Chandlers for far less money than the pirates were expecting.

He said the pirates finally settled for a relatively small ransom because local elders and businessmen were putting increasing pressure on the pirates, who were getting worried that the Chandlers might die in captivity because of their age and the harsh conditions.

"We told these guys that if the Chandlers died you will be hunted down," Aden said. "They were worried."

Conflicting reports from Somali officials about the release said there was either a $300,000 ransom for "expenses" or a $1 million ransom that the Somali diaspora helped pay. A spokeswoman for Britain's Foreign Office said the ministry wasn't immediately able to comment on the release, but it has always insisted that the British government never pays ransom.

A serious attempt to free the Chandlers had been made in June, the Associated Press reported being told by a Nairobi-based Western official. Roughly $450,000 was dropped from a plane to free the couple, but pirates had been negotiating with different groups of people, and the effort to free the couple fell through, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.

The pirates set the couple free about 4 a.m. Sunday, said Mohamed Aden, the leader of the government administration in Adado, a stifling-hot region of central Somalia near the Ethiopia border. When they arrived in Adado, they were taken to a safe house, where they took a shower and changed clothes. They then took about a 90-minute nap, Aden said. When they awoke they had what he called a "British" breakfast of fried eggs.

"The community expressed their sorrow over their captivity, and they told them that the pirates don't represent all Somalis, but they represent a fringe part of the community," Aden told the AP.

Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed met the Chandlers and said the government had "exerted every humanly possible effort to bring you back to your loved ones."

The Chandlers were to get medical checkups in Nairobi and fly back to Britain shortly afterward. A statement from their family in Britain said the couple were in good spirits, although exhausted.

Abdi Mohamed Elmi, a Somali doctor who has regularly attended to the couple and was involved in efforts to free them, said the Chandlers will now need more specialized attention.

"They need counseling and rest to recover from the situation they have been living in for the last 13 months," Elmi said. "But now they seem okay and were happy this morning."

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

Somali pirates free British couple after 388 days 11/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:21pm]
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