By Abdi Guled
MOGADISHU (Reuters) – Somali pirates said Tuesday they had seized a yacht in the Indian Ocean with a British couple aboard and were taking the vessel to the Horn of Africa nation, while the EU Navy said it may have spotted the boat.
“The British couple are in our hands now. We captured them as they were touring in the Indian Ocean,” a pirate called Hassan told Reuters. He said the two captives were healthy and ransom demands would follow.
Commander John Harbour told Sky News a similar yacht had been spotted by an EU Naval Force Somalia helicopter and that although it was too dark to see the name on the boat, the fact that it was towing two skiffs behind it was suspicious.
“I don’t want to raise everybody’s hopes but it’s the first sighting of a yacht that the EUNF has had so far,” he said.
“We’ve got two ships in the area and a helicopter, and we will keep looking.”
The Seychelles coastguard said it dispatched aircraft to search for the yacht after receiving a distress signal Friday and that naval forces from the NATO alliance, European Union and United States, among others, had joined the search.
“We have not traced the yacht yet,” Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rosette, who is in charge of the Seychelles coastguard, told a news conference. “The yacht had only two passengers on board when it left the Seychelles.”
The Britons, Paul and Rachel Chandler, both in their fifties, left the Seychelles aboard their 38-foot yacht, Lynn Rival, on October 22 and were believed to be sailing toward the east African coast.
Rosette said in a statement that the Seychelles coastguard had no confirmation the yacht had been taken by pirates, “even if the probability of highjacking is high.”
Maritime security groups warned in May of a surge in the number of pirate “mother ships” operating in the Seychelles archipelago’s expansive territorial waters.
The U.S. military said in August it would be deploying unmanned reconnaissance aircraft above the Seychelles to bolster anti-piracy efforts.
GUNMEN PLAGUE SHIPPING LANES
Pirates have plagued busy shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia for several years. Foreign navies have warships in the area to try and prevent hijacks, but the sea gangs have started to hunt for ships far into the Indian Ocean.
Some 27 ships from 16 nations are conducting counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
The pirates typically use “mother ships” to sail hundreds of miles to sea and then launch attacks in small skiffs, armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The gangs — some made up of former Somali fisherman angered by the presence of foreign fishing vessels in their waters — have made tens of millions of dollars in ransoms.
“You never believe it is going to be one of those things that happens to your family,” the couple’s niece Leah Mickleborough told BBC radio.
“All of us as a family are extremely upset by what has happened. We are very distressed and it is such an emotional thing and such a horrible thing to be experiencing,” she said.
Rachel Chandler’s brother Stephen Collett told ITV News there was little prospect any kidnappers would get a ransom.
“I think everything they’ve got is invested in their boat, so if they have been captured then the pirates have got the boat, which is as much as they’re going to find really.”
A final message on the couple’s blog posted at dawn on Friday morning read: “Please ring Sarah.” There has been no communication with the yacht since then.
A sailors’ forum on the Internet said the distress signal was picked up at 0133 GMT Friday and that the vessel was 60 nautical miles from Victoria, the Seychelles’ capital.
In their most audacious attack, pirates hijacked a Saudi supertanker with $100 million worth of oil on board in November last year. It was released after a $3 million ransom was paid.
While there was a relative lull in hijackings in Indian Ocean waters during the middle of 2009 because of monsoon rains, the number of attacks has increased in the past month.
Somali pirates seized a Spanish tuna fishing vessel early in October and a Chinese bulk carrier later in the month. A number of other unsuccessful attacks have been reported.