Mar 21, 2012 3:44 PM EDT
Margot Kiser reports from Nairobi on the successful ransom of British citizen Judith Tebbutt.
On Tuesday afternoon, in the small inland Somali town of Adado, law enforcement officials gazed skyward as a single-engine aircraft circled close overhead. The plane—a U.K.-owned KingAir 200 operated by the British company Phoenix Aviation and reportedly chartered by the British private security firm Salama Fikira—dropped a sack containing an estimated $800,000 to $1 million in cash. The stash was ransom for 56-year-old Judith Tebbutt, a British citizen held hostage for nearly seven months by Somali pirates.
Adado has been a hotbed of hostage rescues this year: Navy SEALs staged a dramatic operation to recover American Jessica Buchanan from the town in January. Tebbutt had been in the pirates’ possession since September 11 of last year, when a Somali gang kidnapped her from an upscale resort in a remote region of Kenya near Somalia’s lawless border. During the abduction, the pirates shot and killed her husband, David; then slipped into a boat and glided north into the country that even locals call “the Land of Death”.
Tebbutt’s initial captors, a dozen or so fishermen and former hotel employees in the area, are thought to be originally from the Bajuni islands in Kenya, and are purported to have connections with the radical Somali terror group Al-Shabab. They sold Tebbutt to a second band of pirates based in Haradhere, on the northern Somali coast. The group that received the ransom this week was from the Ceyr and Saleeban—two parts of the large Hawiye clan—and the gangleader is known to be a man called Bashir.
The ransom worked: a regional administration official named Omar Mohammed Diirey told Reuters that “we have succeeded in the release of the British woman.” At 12:03 p.m. local time, the private security firm rescued Tebbutt and flew her directly to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International airport, where she spent the afternoon with the British High Commission. (It is illegal for most governments to engage in ransom negotiations with criminals, especially if they have terrorist ties.) She is expected to fly back to Britain tonight with her son, who had arranged the ransom and who was waiting in Nairobi for her return. “She was weak physically, but strong in spirit,” said a military official with the Kenyan government.
As foreign governments and armies have stepped up their rescue operations, the pirates are apparently switching up their game as well. According to website Somalia Report, various groups of pirates have begun to “reinforce pirate security” by shuttling their hostages to different areas to avoid detection. The town of Adado—80 miles north of Galkayo in the Galguduud region—is not controlled by Al-Shabab but by more politically-neutral pirates. This made the rescue of both Buchanan and Tebbutt much easier and more secure, and even though the gang that held Tebbutt is reportedly on good terms with Al-Shabab, the terrorist group is not thought to have been overtly involved with the kidnappings. According to a humanitarian-aid worker based in Adado, police rushed to the ransom-drop site and arrested the pirates after Tebbutt’s rescue, but later released them—perhaps, as one source put it, because “the police wanted their piece of the cake.”.
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Margot Kiser is a Kenya-based American correspondent covering piracy, geopolitics, and wildlife conservation in East Africa. She is currently at work on a memoir of her life as a safari wife in post-socialist Tanzania, where she established a wildlife-conservation area at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.