The British couple who went missing in the Indian Ocean last week have confirmed by phone that they are being held hostage by Somali pirates.
Paul Chandler, 59, said he and his 55-year-old wife, Rachel, were attacked last Friday as they sailed from the Seychelles to Tanzania. "I was off watch. I was asleep and men with guns came aboard," he told ITV News. "It was on Friday last week at 2.30am."
Chandler said he and his wife were being held on a container ship called the Kota Wajar, a Singapore-flagged vessel pirates captured that two weeks ago. Asking whether their captors had asked for a ransom, he said: "Not officially – they kept asking for money and took everything of value on the boat."
The call was made from the captain's cabin of the Kota Wajar. "We are hostages together with this ship," said Chandler, who added that they were about a mile off the coast of Somalia and the nearest town was Ubdu.
Confirmation of the couple's captivity came amid reports this afternoon that Somali pirates had seized another vessel, with 25 Russians on board. According to the European Union's naval patrol force, pirates in two speedboats seized the Thai-registered boat about 200 miles north of the Seychelles and 650 miles east of the Somali coast.
In the Chandler interview, ITV News's UK editor, Angus Walker, asked him how he was being treated, but the line was lost before Chandler could answer.
Walker had begun the call by passing on a message from Mrs Chandler's brother, Stephen Collett. Walker said: "Stephen says everyone here is fine, we are all thinking of you and just hope you are both well – can't wait to speak to you and see you."
Mr Chandler replied: "Well, that's awfully nice," and laughed.
Gordon Browned appealed for the release of the couple and said: "Piracy and the taking of hostages is unacceptable in any circumstances."
David Miliband, the foreign secretary, said the UK condemned the action "in the strongest possible terms" and pledged that Britain would use "all the mechanisms at our disposal" to secure the Chandlers' safe return.
The Whitehall emergency committee, Cobra, met this morning to investigate how best to bring about the release of the coule.
Earlier, the Ministry of Defence said a Royal Navy ship searching for the couple had found the Chandlers' empty yacht. "We can confirm that a ship encountered a yacht believed to belong with Paul and Rachel Chandler in international waters," a MoD spokesman said. "[The Chandlers] were not aboard the yacht; no one was."
Paul Chandler is a former quantity surveyor and Rachel Chandler an economist. They had not been heard from since last Friday, when the emergency beacon was started on their yacht, the Lynn Rival.
A Somali fisher told the Associated Press that two boats carrying eight pirates and a white couple had arrived early today in the village of Ceel Huur, north of the pirate stronghold town of Haradhere. Dahir Dabadhahan said a convoy of about 30 other pirates in six luxury vehicles met the group in front of fishers who were preparing their boats of the day.
Russia's foreign ministry spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko, said Moscow had learned of the latest hijacking from the EU's naval force, which is patrolling the Indian Ocean waters around Somalia. Russia was urgently seeking more details about the incident from its embassies in east African countries bordering Somalia, and from the Seychelles, he said.
According to the naval forces' website, the fishing vessel – Thai Union 3 – was hijacked early this morning. "Adding this fishing vessel to the total number, this makes eight ships in total held by criminals at the Somali coastline," the website said.
One Russian maritime expert cast doubt on claims that the latest pirate victims were Russians. "It's doubtful there would be a Russian crew aboard a Thai-registered vessel," said Mikhail Voitenko, a journalist who raised the alert following the disappearance of the Russian cargo ship Arctic Sea. "Vietnamese, it can happen, but not Thai. Thai flags are generally used for Thai crews."