4 Min Read
* British couple kidnapped in October 2009
* More than 500 crew members still held by Somali pirates
* Paul Chandler says never felt lives in danger
(Recasts, adds quotes, changes dateline)
By Sahra Abdi
NAIROBI, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Somali pirates released British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler on Sunday, more than a year after gunmen kidnapped the Britons aboard their yacht near the Seychelles archipelago.
The couple were handed to local officials in a central Somali town after a ransom was paid. They were flown to the capital Mogadishu to meet the Somali prime minister and then to neighbouring Kenya, where they arrived on Sunday afternoon.
"We are fine, rather skinny and bony, but we are fine. We were told on Friday in a way which gave us some confidence. But otherwise, we've been told we are going to be released almost every 10 days," Paul Chandler told BBC television.
Somali pirates kidnapped the couple on Oct. 23 last year after hijacking their 38-foot yacht Lynn Rival in the Indian Ocean off the Seychelles.
Paul Chandler, 60, and his wife, Rachel, 56, who are from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in southeast England, had embarked on their voyage when they retired.
Paul said at no time during their captivity did they feel their lives were in danger.
Somali pirates typically hijack merchant vessels, take the ships to coastal towns they control and hold them until a ransom is paid. With ransoms often in the millions of dollars, the lucrative trade has continued despite foreign naval patrols.
While the pirates usually focus on larger ships for a big payoff, a few yachts have also been seized.
"I'm fine, thank you, enjoying being free ... We are with the good guys now," Rachel Chandler told Reuters by telephone just after being released.
A statement from the Chandler family said the two were in "good spirits" but were exhausted and would fly back to Britain after medical checks.
While Somali officials said a ransom was paid, the family asked for restraint in discussing how the couple was freed.
"It would be irresponsible to discuss any aspect of the release process as this could encourage others to capture private individuals and demand large ransom payments, something that we are sure none of us wants," it said.
Somalia has lacked an effective central government for almost two decades and is awash with weapons. The mayhem on land has allowed piracy to boom in the strategic waterways off its shores linking Europe to Asia and Africa.
The International Maritime Board says ship hijackings hit a five-year high in the first nine months of 2010 with Somali pirates accounting for 35 of the 39 ships seized.
According to Ecoterra, a rights group that monitors shipping in the Indian Ocean, more than 500 crew members and nearly 30 ships were still being held by Somali pirates as of Nov. 10.
Pirates in southern Somalia are still holding two South Africans seized from their yacht about two weeks ago.
One French hostage was killed and four were freed in April 2009 when French forces attacked a yacht that had been hijacked by Somali pirates.
"I unreservedly condemn the actions of those that held the Chandlers for so long. Kidnapping is never justified," said British Prime Minister David Cameron. (Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mohamed, Mohamed Ahmed, Abdi Guled and Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; George Obulutsa in Nairobi; Editing by David Clarke and Louise Ireland)