U.K. Couple Kidnapped by Pirates May Be Released Soon

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A retired British couple snatched last year from their sailboat by pirates could be released within weeks as Somali communities inside and outside the East African country work for their freedom, a Somali official said Friday.

Paul and Rachel Chandler were forced by pirates off their 38-foot yacht, the Lynn Rival, and onto an open skiff in October as they headed to Tanzania. Soon after, their pirate captors demanded $7 million to release the Chandlers. Britain's government refuses to pay ransoms to kidnappers.

SLIDESHOW: British Couple Kidnapped by Pirates

Mohamed Omar Dalha, the deputy speaker of Somalia's parliament, told The Associated Press that Somali communities inside and outside the chaos-wracked country have been working to negotiate the "unconditional release" of the Chandlers. Dalha said Friday that he was hopeful they would be released within two weeks.

"We are hopeful that the British couple will be released as soon as possible without condition," he said.

It is extremely unusual for pirates to release hostages without being paid ransom money — or what pirates sometimes label their "expenses" for costs incurred while holding hostages. Nevertheless, Dalha said he was discouraging that any ransom be paid, to discourage future hostage-taking.

The Chandlers are among about 130 sailors held hostage in Somalia, which has not had a stable government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

In the latest pirate attack, the EU Naval Force said it intercepted a pirate group of one mothership and two skiffs early Friday. The pirates earlier attacked a French vessel that had private security on board who repelled the assault.

An EU Naval Force helicopter tracked down the pirates and watched them throw a rocket launcher, grappling hooks and fuel barrels into the ocean. The EU Naval Force said it destroyed the mothership and one skiff and took 11 pirates into custody.

Pirate attacks have been increasing off East Africa the last several years. Pirates attacked ships 217 times in 2009, according to the International Maritime Bureau. That was up from 111 attacks in 2008.

Last year, the average ransom was around $2 million, according to piracy expert Roger Middleton of the British think tank Chatham House. This year, two ransoms paid were around $3 million and $7 million, he said, citing industry officials.