By Mohamed Olad Hassan Associated Press
MOGADISHU, Somalia — The BBC said today that Somali pirates called the broadcaster to demand $7 million for the release of a British couple whose yacht was hijacked off the coast of Africa.
The British broadcaster cited an unidentified caller as saying the size of the ransom was justified because NATO forces in the area had arrested Somali fishermen and destroyed their equipment.
“If they do not harm us, we will not harm them,” the BBC quoted the caller as saying. “We only need a little amount of $7 million.”
Paul and Rachel Chandler were headed to Tanzania in their boat, the Lynn Rival, when a distress signal was sent Oct. 23. The British navy found their empty yacht on Thursday, and both have been in sporadic contact with the British media since.
Rachel Chandler told her brother, Stephen Collett, in a telephone call broadcast by ITV News on today that the couple were “bearing up.”
“They tell us that we’re safe and we shouldn’t worry and that if we want anything they will provide it in terms of food and water and everything like that,” she said, according to a transcript. “They are very hospitable people so don’t worry … Physically we’re fine, physically we’re healthy.”
Earlier today, a Somali pirate claiming to speak on behalf of the group holding the couple said they planned to move them to another hijacked ship with other hostages anchored off the eastern coast of Somalia.
Abdinor, who identified himself only by his first name, said the Chandlers were healthy and his group took them to rest on land Thursday night at the coastal town of Harardhere. He said at the time they had not yet made a ransom demand.
The BBC reported that the pirates discussed for several hours how much money to ask for in return for the pair.
Leah Mickleborough, the couple’s niece, said the family had been unaware of the ransom request before they saw it on the BBC.
“We had no idea what the figure would be. We have seen the report on the BBC and we will look into it,” she said.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it was aware of the report but did not immediately provide any further details.
British officials held a meeting on the hostage situation today in the government’s crisis briefing room, known as COBRA. The Foreign Office said a team from across several government departments was involved.
Both the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defense declined to comment on whether any potential rescue was under consideration.
Over the past two years, France and the U.S. have used military force to rescue hostages from Somali pirates but all cases have involved small vessels — either sailboats or a lifeboat.
In an April French rescue, a hostage was killed. In the same month, the U.S. Navy killed Somali pirates and rescued an American cargo ship captain from the lifeboat where he was being held.
The high-seas hijackings have persisted despite an international armada of warships deployed by the United States, the European Union, NATO, Japan, South Korea and China to patrol the region.
All navies patrolling the expansive waters off the Somali coast have avoided military action against pirates holding hostages on cargo or other large vessels.
Maritime security expert Nick Davis said he thought there was “absolutely zero interest” on the part of the military to use force to rescue the Chandlers.
“That is not a way forward out of this, just not at all,” he said.
To launch a military operation on the pirates would be tactically challenging, Davis said. Getting on board a large container ship, populated by well-armed pirates is a daunting proposition — and it could also transform what pirates see as a business transaction into something more hostile, he said.
The Chandlers’ family has said the couple aren’t rich and that their yacht, the Lynn Rival, is their main asset. Douglas Guilfoyle, a lecturer at University College London, said that could pose a problem.
“The complication I see here is it sounds like these are not people of wealth, nor are they extensively privately insured,” he said.
Separately, Spain today gave permission for its fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean to carry private security guards with military-grade weapons to fend off pirate attacks off Somalia.
Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega made the announcement a month after a Spanish tuna trawler was hijacked by pirates, who continue to hold it and its crew of 36.
She said another Spanish vessel in the region escaped an attempted hijacking today when the attackers’ skiff had engine trouble.
Somalia has not had a functioning government for 18 years. The multimillion-dollar ransoms the pirates regularly collect are a strong lure for young gunmen in a country where nearly half the population is dependent on aid.