Pair’s mystery rescue

2012-06-22 00:00

A COMBINED operation involving Italian agents and African Union and Somali soldiers helped free Durban couple Debbie Calitz and Bruno Pelizzari after almost two years in captivity.

The couple arrived in Rome last night via Djibouti to spend time with Pelizzari’s mother before returning to South Africa. They were accompanied by Pelizzari’s sister, Vera Hecht, who handled negotiations with their captors.

The pair were held just 40 km from the Somali capital of Mogadishu in an Al-Shabaab facility before they were freed.

They were taken hostage in October 2010 after armed Somali pirates hijacked their yacht as it was about to enter the Mozambique channel. The were apparently “sold” recently to the Islamist Al-Shabaab group that is fighting for control of Somalia.

Calitz and Pelizzari were dropped off at the government headquarters, Villa Somalia, in the early hours of the morning.

The Italian government reportedly played a key role in the run-up to their release.

Precisely what happened in the past week is unclear, but the Italian government said it monitored “every step of the release”. Somali Defence Minister Hussein Arab Isse said his soldiers snatched the pair from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab. He said the operation began on Wednesday evening.

But family members said it was a negotiated release.

“All I can say is, thank you for the support and giving us our freedom,” a gaunt and ashen Pelizzari said at a short press conference at the presidential palace. “I thank the Somali people, the beautiful country. Please open your hospitality to the world. It’s dawn. It’s a new age.”

Calitz, who spoke haltingly, said: “We are very happy to get our freedom again. We are so happy today to join our families again.”

Informed sources in Somalia said several Al-Shabaab-affiliated groups in the south had come under pressure over the past few months and had broken away and leaving the area. The group holding the couple could have been one of these disenchanted factions.

Italy still has influence in Somalia, a former colony, and the fact that Pelizzari’s father was a WW2 hero meant it became involved out of respect. Italy was silent on the issue of a ransom yesterday, but the South African government said the families managed to raise less than $1 million (R 8,31 million) of the $10 million ransom demanded by the hostage takers.

Hecht had repeatedly said she was negotiating for a reduced ransom because the families could never hope to raise the amount demanded.

AFP quoted Pelizzari’s younger sister, Dora Hunt, as saying: “We definitely paid something for their release.”

Calitz’s daughter, Kerri-Ann Cross, told The Witness yesterday: “I am over the moon that my mother was released after a horrific 20 months as a hostage. I can’t wait to see her and have her in my arms.

“I am informed that they were on a plane to Italy to see Bruno’s mother … They are happy and looking forward to being home.”

Hecht’s daughter, Terry-Louise, said the family was relieved the pair was safe and confirmed they were with her mother.

They had spoken to Pelizzari and Calitz, but the connection was bad.Pelizzari was very happy.

“All he could say was ‘we are free’ over and over,” said Terry-Louise.

Pelizzari’s other sister, Nora Wright, said: “The Italian government was instrumental in their release. They will be back home in the next three days.

“Bruno’s sons are also looking forward to meeting their father again.”

The regional director of the Gift of the Givers for East Africa, Dr Abdirisack Hashi, said the Somalis had paid a ransom, but he did not know the amount.

Department of International Relations and Co-operation spokesperson Nelson Kgwete said: “The couple is in good health and eager to be reunited with their loved ones.”

Asked if any ransom had been paid, he said it was not Pretoria’s policy to pay a ransom.

Kgwete thanked the Somalian and Italian governments for their help.

• About 200 hostages of different nationalities and at least 10 vessels are still being held hostage by Somali pirates.

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