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British couple marks year in Somali captivity

MOGADISHU (AFP) – A retired British couple whose yacht was hijacked by pirates near the Seychelles in 2009 were to mark a year in captivity Saturday, with negotiations for their release at a standstill.

Paul and Rachel Chandler were captured on October 23 last year, a day after leaving the idyllic shores of the Indian Ocean archipelago for Tanzania.

The blog chronicling the journeys of their yacht -- the Lynn Rival -- remains frozen on an abrupt last entry posted in capital letters at 6:41 am on the day of their kidnapping: "PLEASE RING SARAH".

Abdi Yare, a senior pirate commander, expressed surprise that such a vulnerable boat would set sail at the peak of the piracy season, when he spoke to AFP shortly after the hijacking.

"This was an unexpected catch because nobody could have predicted that two people on their own would have dared to venture out in the Indian Ocean at this time," he said.

Somali sea-jackers prowling the region's busy trade routes capture dozens of vessels each year to seek ransoms from large ship owners, but cases involving small yachts are rare.

The couple were swiftly brought back to shore by the pirates for an ordeal that has become one of the longest and most high-profile hostage cases in Somalia's recent, troubled history.

In January, an AFP reporter who was able to see the Chandlers briefly, said they appeared physically weakened and mentally distressed.

"Please help us, these people are not treating us well," said Rachel Chandler. "I'm old, I'm 56 and my husband is 60 years old. We need to be together because we have not much time left."

According to a source close to the negotiations, the Chandlers are now together after being held for months in separate locations near the central Somali town of Amara.

In an interview in May, the couple pleaded with Prime Minister David Cameron to facilitate their release. But a government spokesman has reiterated Britain's staunch opposition to ransom payments.

The pirates are believed to have reduced astronomical initial demands to around one million dollars.

Almost half of that sum was collected by friends and relatives and paid during a exchange in June, but they failed to obtain the release of the couple.

According to clan sources close to the negotiations, the couple was reunited essentially because the kidnappers can no longer afford the cost of holding them separately.

Members of the same sub-clan holding the Chandlers last week also kidnapped a British security consultant working for Save the Children and his Somali fixer in the town of Adado.

The Somali was freed almost immediately and the Briton a few days later following pressure from clan elders.

The central Somali transitional government, which exercises little control over the region where the Chandlers are being held, issued a statement Friday calling for fresh impetus in release efforts.

"We will review efforts made over the past twelve months and seek new channels of influence and negotiation including contacts with clan and community leaders," the statement said.

The British consultant's release on Wednesday "offers hope for Paul and Rachel and all other hostages held in our country," Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman said.

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