Exhausted but elated, Paul and Rachel Chandler will return home today after being freed in return for a secret £625,000 ransom. The British yacht couple’s 388-day ordeal in the hands of Somali pirates ended yesterday when the second instalment of the sum was paid. A delighted Mrs Chandler, 57, summed up their delight, declaring: ‘We are happy to be alive, happy to be free and desperate to see our family.’ And her 60-year-old husband said that ‘ideally’ he would like to go back to sea soon. The couple from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, were flown from Somalia to the safety of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Their sudden release followed months of fraught negotiations which at one stage saw £275,000 from the Chandlers’ family in UK dropped from a light aircraft only for the kidnappers to go back on an agreement and refuse to release the couple. That betrayal meant the couple, seized at gunpoint in October 2009 as they sailed their yacht in the Indian Ocean, spent another five months in their bushland prison. Despite their gaunt appearance, they said they were well and a doctor who examined them described their condition as ‘remarkable given what they have endured’ Mr Chandler, a retired civil engineer, said: ‘We’re fine. We’re rather skinny and bony but we’re fine. I have my wife and I have my life.’
He said they had been promised on Friday that they would be freed but went on: ‘We’d been told we’d be released in ten days almost every ten days for the past nine months. So we’d taken all these suggestions with a pinch of salt.’ A news blackout had been imposed over the couple’s case in recent months while negotiations took place to end their ordeal. The pirates had originally demanded a £4.2million ransom for the Chandlers, who have no children. The ransom which liberated the Chandlers will inevitably raise fears that the wrong message has gone out: kidnapping pays. Seizing rich people and selling them back to their families is big business from Iraq and Afghanistan to South American drug countries such as Colombia.But it is most rampant among pirates operating from Somalia, a failed state since 1991, where in some regions ransom money is practically the only source of income and whole towns thrive on it. For these reasons the British government has a long-standing policy against paying such ransoms. A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘Although there is no UK law against third parties paying ransoms, we counsel against them doing so because we believe that making concessions only encourages future kidnaps. This is why the Government does not make or facilitate substantive concessions to hostage takers.’
In 2004, before Iraq hostage Ken Bigley was beheaded, Tony Blair publicly ruled out surrendering in to his kidnappers’ demands, despite harrowing footage of the Liverpool civil engineer literally begging the then Prime Minister for his life. Despite the terrible circumstances, Mr Blair held firm that it would be ‘completely wrong’.
Mr Bigley was beheaded on October 7, 2004 and a video of his gruesome murder was posted online. Their refusal to release them after the cash drop in June led to a total breakdown in negotiations which was overcome only in recent days after Somalia’s transitional government and the Somali community in Britain agreed to make a further payment believed to be about £350,000. A key figure in brokering this deal was minicab driver Dahir Abdullahi Kadiye, 56, from Leytonstone, East London, who devoted six months to acting as a hostage negotiator and raising money from the Somali community in the UK. Asked if he had felt their lives were in danger during captivity, he was cautious. ‘That’s something we will talk about later, but we were not really directly endangered by the gang, after the initial seizure.’ Mrs Chandler said she had greeted the news they were to be released with ‘almost disbelief’. ‘We have been a year with criminals and that’s not a very nice thing to be doing,’ she said.
She too was reticent about how they had been kept, saying: ‘The niceties of how we have been kept are not terribly important’. Her husband said: ‘You can see from our state that we suffered no serious physical harm’. However he added: ‘We were beaten once’ – a reference to when they were hit with a rifle butt as they fought against being separated. From Mogadishu it was on to Nairobi, where last night the couple posed happily for pictures outside the High Commission. They will be debriefed today and issued with new passports before flying home if medical examinations give the all clear.
Abdi Hangul, a Somali doctor who has regularly attended to the couple and helped broker their freedom, warned that once home they will need more specialised attention. ‘They need counselling and rest,’ he said. ‘But they seem OK and were happy this morning. They had showers, changed clothes and had breakfast with us smiling.’ In a statement the Chandler family in the UK described news of the release as ‘wonderful’ but added: ‘We cannot yet be certain how the difficulties that they have had to endure in recent months will have affected them physically and emotionally.’ The British government has steadfastly stuck to its policy of not paying ransoms and David Cameron made no reference to the behind-the-scenes dealing when he called the release ‘tremendous news’. ‘Their long captivity is over at last,’ he said. ‘We will ensure that they are reunited with their family as quickly as possible.’ The simple airstrip in the parched scrubland outside the Somali village of Adado is more used to roaming livestock than charter planes. But it was on their departure from what is grandly known as the Adado Aerodrome yesterday that Paul and Rachel Chandler could finally believe their 388-day ordeal was over.
Hours earlier the couple had been handed into the ‘protective custody’ of Mohamed Aden, a 38-year-old pro-Western warlord whose militia controls the airfield. This triggered the release of the final part of an estimated million-dollar (£625,000) ransom handed over in defiance of the British government policy of never paying kidnappers.
The seven-hour journey to Nairobi, via Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, marked an end to the most extraordinarily protracted, confusing and frustrating series of negotiations carried out by ex-Special Forces kidnap specialists, family members and Somali politicians. The talks were characterised by double dealing and betrayal. On at least three occasions it appeared a deal had been struck with a man named Noor, the 31-year-old leader of the 28-strong pirate gang. But each time hopes were cruelly dashed.
In one of the many bizarre twists, a formal written contract was drawn up last summer between the pirates and the Chandler family for the release in return for £275,000.
That money was ‘dropped’ to the captors from a twin-engined Cessna over Adado on June 17. But the pirates then insisted more money was owed, claiming a second ransom deal had been struck with a mysterious ‘third party’ – and their cash had not been forthcoming. For the Chandlers it was a crushing blow. Noor had allowed them to speak by telephone with a relative in the UK who had told them they might soon be freed. Days later, in a video of the couple recorded at the demand of pirates in the hope it would lead to more money being paid out, they admitted: ‘We are resigned to dying here.’ When the patience of the couple’s family in the UK ran out last year because of the British government’s apparent impotence, specialists were called in from an international private security firm including former members of the SAS. They had good contacts in Somalia having brokered several multi-million-pound ransom deals to release tankers.
THE CHANDLER'S ORDEAL
October 22, 2009 - The couple set off from the Seychelles in their yacht, Lynn Rival, towards Tanzania
October 23 - Their last message is posted on online travel blog 'Please ring Sarah'
October 27 - News agency said pirate claimed to have taken couple captive
October 30 - Ransom demand of $7million is made for the Chandlers' release
November 20 - Chandlers appear on Channel 4 to say captors are 'losing patience' and they could be killed within a week
January 21, 2010 - Mr Chandler reveals in ITV interview that couple are being held in separate locations.
January 22 - A Special Boat Service mission to rescue the couple is aborted after technical problems and delays
March 1 - Mrs Chandler appears on Somali television and said she was 'tormented and very, very lonely and worried'
March 5 - Somali deputy parliamentary speaker Mohamed Omar Dalha said he was hopeful they could be released in two weeks.
May 27 - Mr Chandler appeals to new coalition government to help secure their release
November 14 - The couple are released in Adado and are flown to Mogadishu after a $1million ransom was paid
They began to explore channels to negotiate with the pirates. One was to be Mohamed Aden, another the Somali government and the third a Somali doctor, Abdi Hangul, who treated the couple during their captivity. All three were to prove pivotal to yesterday’s release.
So too was East London minicab driver Dahir Abdullahi Kadiye, a British Somali, who took on the role of hostage negotiator because his children told him they felt ashamed after watching the couple appeal for help. Meanwhile, a Foreign Office team kept in contact with the family, Downing Street, the UK High Commission in Nairobi and the Somali government.
Pressure on those working for the Chandlers’ release mounted when the couple were separated, after having been beaten with the butt of a Kalashnikov and constantly moved as pirates feared a rescue attempt or a bid by rival pirates to take their ‘prized asset’. Once they had to be moved hidden in the boot of a car.
There were concerns, too, that the Chandlers would be ‘sold on’ to one of the radical Islamic groups in the region linked to Al Qaeda – a move which would make a ransom impossible and increase the prospect that they might be killed. Some seven months ago the negotiators established that the couple were back together, being held near the village of Amara in Central Somalia. Crucially, they had an ally in the region – Mohamed Aden, a colourful part-time militia commander, schoolteacher and engineer who was also a US citizen and pro-Western. Born in Somalia, he had emigrated at the age of 22, living with his wife and five boys in a Minneapolis suburb after fleeing his homeland with an uncle.
Talking and dressing more like a rapper than a warlord, he was an unlikely ally. But he was the best, if not only option. Indeed, when in April negotiators believed a release might be close, one of the stumbling blocks was the fact that Aden had returned to the US to be with his wife, Shasmo, who was about to give birth. Without his presence in Adado, the security of the couple and the rescue flight could not be guaranteed Frustrated, the negotiators continued their low-key work and in the second week of June believed a deal had been struck Amid great secrecy, a member of the family flew to Nairobi with former Special Forces operatives who could form part of an ‘extraction’ team. It was hoped the Chandlers would be free by the second week of June. Cash was moved to Nairobi and a hired Cessna took off on the morning of June 17 for Adado, to drop off what the negotiators call the ‘green stuff’ with the belief the couple would then be handed to Mohamed Aden.
It was after the money had been counted that the pirates called off the release, citing the money from the ‘third party’ which would have doubled the amount they received.
A ‘heated’ meeting is said to have taken place in Aden’s house with the pirate leader, Noor, who began to make new threats against the couple. The failure meant that the couple’s fate was in the hands now of the mysterious third party, which neither the family or negotiators are said to have known much about. As Aden distanced himself from the developments, a bitter telephone exchange is said to have taken place between Noor and a member of the family, who accused him of a ‘double cross’ and changing the rules. In the early days the pirates had bombarded Mrs Chandler’s brother, Stephen Collett, with calls around the clock making demands and threats. Now there was silence.,It appeared the deal had been blown apart. Baffled and downhearted, family members and negotiators returned to the UK amid claims in Adado that the ransom had been upped to $2million (£1,250,000). But according to Mohamed Aden, by June 25 there were ‘positive messages’ that a deal was still possible and the mysterious third party was revealed to be the Somali community in Britain.
Tribal elders claimed $200,000 would be transferred over the weekend of July 11 using the traditional Hawala system favoured in the Islamic world to transfer money directly from one broker to another. In Adado, both Aden and the pirates were suggesting the couple could be free in days. But again there were problems. In the pirate coastal capital of Harardhere – where last year a co-operative was formed to finance and sanction pirate activities – there was said to be a dispute over the final division of the ransom among gang members. To counter rumours that the couple had been killed, a ‘proof of life’ video was shot and shown in London to the family. It made harrowing viewing. Mr Chandler lamented: ‘I think they will keep us here until we die.’ His wife added: ‘We are suffering old people ... they don’t care. They just want to rob anyone. It’s heartbreaking, they just walk all over us.’ Despairing and angry, some family members blamed the constant scrutiny of the media for compromising negotiations and an injunction was secured in the courts in August preventing new material being used until the Chandlers were safe.
With a blackout in place, negotiations continued but in the words of one involved: ‘They went nowhere.’ Finally this month there was a ‘potential breakthrough’ with an additional $500,000 being offered – much of it supplied by Somalia’s transitional government in Mogadishu and some by the Somali community in UK. It was brokered to the pirate factions by Dr Hangul, the English-speaking doctor, from their own tribe whose role it was to convince them this really was the final offer. The timing was good for it came against the background of an already lucrative few days for Somalia’s pirates after the owners of a Singaporean-flagged ship and a South Korean supertanker paid a total of $16million for their release.
Last Thursday in Amara, a delegation of Somali elders, Dr Hangul and British-based Somali businessmen met pirate negotiators, including those who had actually boarded the Lynn Rival yacht to capture the Chandlers in October 2009.
In fact, the pirates were tired of the Chandlers and the mounting pressures on them for a release, and agreed to accept the latest offer with the majority of the cash this time only to be handed over at the point of release. But even then, there was no guarantee of freedom as the pirates had handed the couple over to a team of clan bodyguards whose role it was to hold them in their bushland prison near Amara.