NAIROBI, KENYA—A British couple kidnapped off their private yacht by Somali pirates more than a year ago were set free Sunday, ending one of the most drawn-out and dramatic hostage situations since the rash of piracy began off East Africa.
Paul and Rachel Chandler looked relaxed and smiled through a small ceremony held in the Somali town of Adado after their morning release. Rachel Chandler told The Associated Press by phone: “We are happy to be alive.”
Pirates boarded the Chandler’s 38-foot yacht the night of Oct. 23, 2009, while 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.
Despite an international flotilla of warships and aircraft, pirates continue to prowl the Indian Ocean off Somalia seemingly at will, pouncing on pleasure craft, fishing vessels and huge cargo ships.
Efforts to free the couple by the Somali diaspora, the weak Mogadishu-based government and Britain had failed until now. The couple on Sunday flew from Adado to Mogadishu and after a short stop continued on to Kenya’s capital.
“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.
The pirates set the couple free at about 4 a.m., said the leader of the government administration in Adado, Mohamed Aden. 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 did not eat very much 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 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 couple and said the government was pleased they had been freed. He said the government had “exerted every humanly possible effort to bring you back to your loved ones.”
The couple then got back aboard a private jet for the trip to Nairobi.
Dahir Abdullahi, a Somali who helped negotiate the Chandlers’ release, said the couple talked to their relatives by phone shortly after being set free.
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 counselling 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.”
Despite the Chandlers’ release, Somali pirates still hold close to 500 hostages and more than 20 vessels. The pirates typically only release hostages for multimillion dollar ransoms.
Conflicting reports from Somali officials about the Chandlers’ release said either a $300,000 ransom for “expenses” was paid or that a $1 million ransom that was contributed to by the Somali diaspora was paid.
Britain’s Foreign Office has always insisted that the British government never pays any ransom to hostage takers. A spokeswoman said the ministry wasn’t immediately able to comment on the release.
The Chandlers do not come from a wealthy background, part of the reason their hostage ordeal took so long. A serious attempt to free them was made in June, according to a Nairobi-based Western official. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of $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 could not be identified by name because of the nature of his work.
Somali pirates have made tens of millions of dollars from the piracy trade over the last several years, fueling a building boom in Somali neighbourhoods of Nairobi and a spending spree on cars, women and guns in pirate towns.
Pirates set off on small skiffs and fire automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at passing ships in order to take them over. When they succeed, shipping companies often pay millions in ransom to win the release of their crew, ship and cargo.
International navies have taken a more aggressive approach this year to stop the pirates, and vessels often employ armed, private security on board. But the hijackings have persisted, in part because of how vast the sea is, and because of the high pay pirates can make in a country where little economic opportunities exist.
Somalia has been without a functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.