UK hostages 'happy to be alive'

2010-11-14 16:58

Mogadishu - British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler on Sunday said they were "happy to be alive" after the Somali pirates who hijacked their yacht near the Seychelles last year released them for a ransom.

The retired couple appeared in good health and smiled as they briefly spoke to journalists during a stopover in Mogadishu, on their way to Nairobi from the town of Adado where their 388-day ordeal came to an end earlier on Sunday.

"We are feeling very happy to be alive and happy to be here... among decent everyday people," Rachel Chandler said, adding they were "desperate to see family and friends" and thanking the Somalis who worked for their release.

Instead of flying directly from Adado to the safety of Nairobi, the British couple left the country of their ordeal from war-torn Mogadishu, one of the world's most dangerous cities.

After being greeted by senior officials at the presidential palace, which has been routinely attacked by al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents in recent months, Rachel Chandler climbed back onto the plane wearing a red cap and fresh clothes.

Her husband Paul followed her after taking pictures on the tarmac.

When they land at Nairobi's Wilson airport, British officials are expected to take them to the high commission for a debriefing and medical treatment.

Good health

They were given breakfast and a chance to make phone calls and shower in Adado, where they were hosted in the compound of Mohamed Aden "Tiiceey", the president of the local self-styled administration of Himan and Heeb.

He contributed to the Chandlers release, together with Abdi Mohamed Helmi "Hangul", a Somali surgeon who had already managed to see the pair in January.

"They look in relatively good health but they need to be checked," Hangul told AFP from Adado.

Rachel Chandler explained there how they communicated with their captors using a Somali-English phrasebook.

The couple were driven overnight from the town of Amara, where they spent most of their captivity.

Somalia's newly-appointed prime minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed said after greeting the Chandlers that the government, much in need of credibility, "exerted every humanly possible effort" to free them.

The freed couple from the southern English region of Kent, who have been married for 30 years, spent much of their ordeal separated and had told an AFP reporter earlier this year they feared for their lives.

$750 000

A deal was struck with the pirates this week and, according to Somali elders and sources close to the tortuous negotiations that led to their release, a total of at least $750 000 was paid in ransom.

The Chandlers' plight generated considerable interest in Britain and became one of the most-profile hostage cases in Somalia's recent, troubled history but the British government has a strict policy of not paying any ransoms.

The money known to have been paid - a much smaller amount than what pirates have been earning from shipowners for cargo, fishing and other vessels - is believed to have been gathered by family and members of the Somali diaspora.

The pirates had initially demanded $7m.

The Chandlers were kidnapped on October 23 last year, a day after leaving the Seychelles for Tanzania.

The blog chronicling the journeys of their yacht - the Lynn Rival - remained frozen on an abrupt last entry posted in capital letters at 06:41 on the day of their kidnapping: "PLEASE RING SARAH".

Abdi Yare, a senior pirate commander, expressed surprise that such a vulnerable boat "would have dared to venture out" at the peak of the piracy season, when he spoke to AFP shortly after the hijacking last year.

Somali sea-jackers prowling the region's busy trade routes capture dozens of vessels each year to seek ransoms from large ship owners, but cases involving small yachts are rare.