Mystery over ransom for kidnapped yacht couple

Confusion over Somali pirate ransom; intermediary says he handed over $450,000 but denies he made a profit from the deal.

Released British hostages Rachel (L) and Paul (R) Chandler pose with newly-appointed Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (C) on November 14, 2010 in Mogadishu. The released British couple flew from the town of Adado, where their 388-day ordeal came to an end earlier on November 14, to Mogadishu where they were greeted by top government officials. The Chandlers 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 of 750,000 US dollars. From Mogadishu they were to fly to Nairobi's Wilson airport, where British officials were expected to take them to the high commission for a debriefing and medical treatment.           AFP PHOTO / MUSTAFA ABDI

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LONDON // The British yachting couple held captive by Somali pirates for more than a year were expected to return to the United Kingdom yesterday amid mounting speculation over the ransom paid to free them.

Although press reports have suggested that $1 million (Dh3.67m) was the price of freedom for Paul and Rachel Chandler, well-placed sources in London last night said the Somali government had, in fact, handed over a relatively modest $300,000 to the pirates last week.

Somali expatriates in London said yesterday that they had arranged pledges of £300,000 earlier this year to try to secure the Chandlers' release.

Halim Ali Awaleh, a Somali community worker in London, said that her countrymen had felt guilty over the couple's plight but that the money was not handed over after negotiations with the kidnappers broke down.

Dahir Abdullahi Kadiye, the former owner of a cab company in London, said he oversaw the transfer of more than $450,000 when he led a party of local elders and armed men from the small Somali town of Adado to the Chandlers' undisclosed release point.

Mr Kadiye, 56, who flew with the couple to Nairobi after their release, said he became a negotiator six months ago after his children told him they were ashamed to be Somalian after seeing television footage of the Chandlers' plight.

Filmed by Sky News with the Chandlers in Nairobi, Mr Kadiye, who splits his time between Somalia and his east London home, said: "I am excited about standing next to the Chandlers on TV. This will make my sons very happy."

Mr Kadiye denied that he had profited personally from the release of the Britons.

A rap video made by members of the Somali community in London and sold across the world in the past two months is believed to have raised more than £100,000 for a fund to help secure the Chandlers' freedom.

In June, about $430,000 - raised by the Chandlers' family, friends and donors, including members of the Somali diaspora - was also delivered, although Reuters reported at the time that this had not reached the pirates but had been kept by tribal elders acting as middle men.

Successive British governments have steadfastly refused to countenance the payment of any ransom since Mr Chandler, 60, and his 56-year-old wife were kidnapped when pirates boarded their 11.5-metre yacht, Lynn Rival, as they headed towards Tanzania from the Seychelles in October last year.

After the Chandlers' release, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, reiterated the long-standing British policy of not paying ransoms.

"I think it is right that successive British governments have said we don't make concessions to hostage-takers. But it is also right to do everything else we have done in this case, and that the previous government did," he said.

"We have used our contacts in the region to try to gain information and to influence the hostage-takers. But no British government is going to start paying ransoms for hostages."

However, UK press reports yesterday suggested that, while the bulk of British aid to Somalia is channelled through the European Union and United Nations, £5.5 million was paid to the Somali government earlier this year for a "governance and peace-building programme" that could have been used to pay off the ransom.

But a spokesman for the transitional government in Mogadishu - which controls little beyond the presidential palace, airport and seaport - said that no UK money had been used.

Government sources in London said that reports from the area suggested that the pirates, who had originally demanded $7 million for the couple's release, simply wanted to be rid of the Chandlers after holding them for 388 days.

"Given that they got almost $10 million earlier this month for one commercial vessel, the Chandlers were not a great money-making prospect," a senior diplomat said.

"The pirates have mounting problems with al Qa'eda-linked insurgents in their area and other local difficulties. Additionally, they have had the constant fear of a rescue attempt by UK special forces."

Roger Middleton is an expert on piracy in the Horn of Africa at a London think tank, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. He fears that even paying a modest ransom for the Chandlers' freedom enhances the risks to other yachtsmen.

"There is no doubt that paying ransoms fuels the problem of piracy and, if you map the increase in ransom payments against the rise in incidents of piracy, you will see that correlation very clearly," he said.

"A few hundred thousand pounds is a relatively small sum for holding two hostages for a year compared with what they could have made by hijacking a commercial vessel, but it has still definitely made it worthwhile.

"Pirates would always rather target a commercial ship because they know that's the most profitable option, but if they have been on the water for a couple of weeks and their supplies are running low, they will take anything they can see."

The Chandlers, from the town of Tunbridge Wells in south-eastern England, spent their first full day of freedom yesterday at the British High Commission in Nairobi.

The news was broken to them of the death of Mr Chandler's father while they were being held. In a statement issued on their behalf, they said: "We have just learned that Paul's father died in late July, and we obviously need to come to terms with that.

"We will return to the UK very soon. We do not intend to give any press interviews or make any further statements until we have had time to adjust to the situation and we would appreciate it if you would give us and our families some space, and respect our privacy for the moment."