MOGADISHU, Somalia — Paul and Rachel Chandler, a retired British couple who sailed to exotic locales aboard their 38-foot yacht, said in one of their last cheery messages they would likely be "out of touch for some time."
After disappearing for a week, a somber Paul Chandler is back in contact, saying by telephone Thursday that he and his wife are being held captive by gun-toting pirates who stripped their vessel of everything of value.
Despite the presence of warships and aircraft from more than a half-dozen nations, the pirates prowl the Indian Ocean off Somalia seemingly at will, pouncing on pleasure craft, fishing vessels and huge cargo ships.
With the recent end of monsoon season in East Africa, there have been a rash of attacks as pirates return to the open seas. More than 190 crew members from eight ships are being held. The latest seizure on Thursday was of a Thai fishing vessel carrying 21 Russians, two Filipinos and two Ghanians, the Seychelles coast guard said.
Paul Chandler told Britain's ITV News in a phone call that he and his wife were being held aboard a container ship anchored a mile from the Somali coast. They apparently had been briefly taken ashore.
A fisherman told The Associated Press he saw two boats carrying eight pirates and a white couple come ashore in the village of Ceel Huur, just north of Haradhere, a notorious pirate stronghold. Dahir Dabadhahan said six luxury vehicles carrying about 30 other pirates cleared bystanders from their path.
"The pirates fired into the air, waving us to move away," he said.
At a European Union summit in Brussels, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown appealed for the couple's release. Foreign Secretary David Miliband pledged that Britain would use "all the mechanisms at our disposal" to secure their safe return.
Chandler told ITV the pirates crept aboard his yacht at night while he was asleep.
"They kept asking for money and took everything of value on the boat," Chandler, 59, said in the interview before the phone connection was abruptly broken off.
The British navy found the yacht – empty – in international waters earlier Thursday. Warships had been searching for the Lynn Rival since it sent out a distress signal Oct. 23.
Chandler later told the BBC in a telephone interview that he is being treated well by his captors.
"We are well, and being looked after OK," Chandler said. "Food is OK."
He did not appear to be able to speak freely.
Asked whether he was in Somalia, he said: "I can't answer that," and responding to a question about whether he had a message for British officials, he said there was "nothing I can say."
A pirate spokesman who identified himself as Abdinor said the bandits will negotiate a ransom for the couple. The British government does not make or facilitate "substantive concessions" to hijackers, including ransom payments, the British Foreign Office said.
"We do expect a ransom demand," Rachel Chandler's brother, Stephen Collett, told the BBC. "The problem is they are not rich people. Most of the money is tied up with their yacht and other communications equipment, which is on board the yacht."
Paul Chandler's sister, Jill Marshment, pleaded for the Chandlers' release and also said they weren't wealthy. Even with only two aboard, the couple described the Lynn Rival as cramped. It is powered mostly by sails and has a small outboard engine.
"They are resilient people. They won't be weeping," Marshment said. "Instead, they'll be thinking: 'What are we going to do? What are we going to say?'"
Paul Chandler has been identified in the British media as a retired construction site manager, while Rachel, 55, is described as an economist. The couple, married for 28 years, took early retirement about three years ago and have spent six-month spells at sea. They have sailed to the Greek islands, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Oman, Yemen, India, the Maldives and the Seychelles, chronicling their voyage on a Web log.
The Chandlers were well aware they have been sailing through pirate territory, according to their blog entries.
A March 2008 post reported that they "didn't see any pirates, just a few fisherman inshore and large ships passing further offshore." In February, they reported passing through a "high risk of piracy area," traveling in a convoy of five yachts for protection.
They wrote in June that another couple had recently left for Tanzania after delaying their departure "because of the Somali pirate problem."
According to an Oct. 21 entry, the Chandlers planned to set sail the next day and be at sea for eight to 12 days, heading south toward Tanzania.
"We probably won't have satellite phone coverage until we're fairly close to the African coast, so we may be out of touch for some time," they wrote.
The last message on the blog was posted Oct. 23, the day the pirates came, and cryptically read: "Please ring Sarah" – a possible reference to Rachel's sister, who lives in the London area.
Piracy expert Nick Davies of the Merchant Maritime Warfare Center said the couple should have known better.
"They sailed into the lion's den and they did it knowingly and they should be sternly told they have created an international scenario that was entirely avoidable," Davies said.
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.
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.
Lawless reported from London. Associated Press writers Jennifer Quinn and Raphael G. Satter in London also contributed to this report.
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