After 388 days, Somali pirates free British couple

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 stretched 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 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," Chandler 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 OK."

Pirates boarded the Chandlers' yacht the night of Oct. 23, 2009, while the couple were sailing from the island nation of Seychelles. The couple, married for almost three decades, 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.

They could not make it through the dangerous waters of East Africa, where pirate attacks have spiked the past several years. Despite an international flotilla of warships and aircraft, pirates continue to prowl the Indian Ocean seemingly at will, pouncing on pleasure craft, fishing vessels and huge cargo ships using small skiffs, automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

Somali pirates still hold close to 500 hostages and more than 20 vessels. The pirates typically release hostages for multimillion-dollar ransoms only, but unlike the companies who own large transport ships, the Chandlers are far from rich. Paul Chandler has been identified in the British media as a retired construction site manager, while Rachel has been described as an economist.

Pirates had initially sought a $7 million ransom. The Chandler family said in a statement Sunday that during protracted discussions with pirates that it was "a difficult task" to convey that Paul and Rachel were "two retired people on a sailing trip on a small private yacht and not part of a major commercial enterprise."

Repeated efforts to free the couple by the Somali diaspora, the weak Mogadishu-based government and Britain had failed over the past year until, the family said, "common sense finally prevailed." The family said it would not comment on questions about payment to the pirates, so as not to encourage the capture of other private individuals.

Conflicting reports from Somali officials about the Chandlers' 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.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called the Chandlers' release "tremendous news."

"Their long captivity is over at last," he said. "I unreservedly condemn the actions of those that held the Chandlers for so long. Kidnapping is never justified."

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 Somali near the Ethiopia border. When they arrived in Adado, they were taken to a safe house, 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 couple attended a ceremony with several dozen people seated in blue plastic chairs. Rachel Chandler wore a bright red dress and red scarf. Paul Chandler wore a mauve-colored short shirt and a green patterned sarong. Both appeared thin, suggesting they ate little while in the control of pirates in a sweltering region near the Ethiopia border.

"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. "The Chandlers thanked the community in return and they said they are grateful for anyone who played a role in their release."

In the Somali capital, the couple walked across the airport tarmac, smiling and thanking people. Paul Chandler had a large camera around his neck and was taking photos.

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

Somalia, however, has been without a functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Pirates, meanwhile, have made tens of millions of dollars over the past several years, fueling a building boom in Somali neighborhoods of Nairobi and a spending spree on cars, women and guns in pirate towns.

The Chandlers were to get medical checkups in Nairobi and fly back to Britain shortly afterward. A statement from their family in Britain said that Paul and Rachel were in good spirits although tired and 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 OK and were happy this morning. They had showers, changed clothes and had breakfast with us smiling."

A serious attempt to free the Chandlers had been made in June, according to 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, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.

International navies have taken a more aggressive approach this year to stop the pirates, and vessels often employ armed, private security on board. The hijackings have persisted because the sea is so vast and because piracy offers Somalis high pay in a country where few economic opportunities exist.


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