Somali pirates free British hostage

NAIROBI Wed Mar 21, 2012 9:55am EDT

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Somali pirates freed British hostage Judith Tebbutt on Wednesday more than six months after gunmen killed her husband and snatched her from a beach resort in neighboring Kenya.

Tebbutt's kidnapping and the subsequent abductions of other foreigners prompted Kenya to send hundreds of troops into Somalia in October to try to crush the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants that Nairobi blamed for the attacks.

"After efforts today, we have succeeded in the release of the British woman. She just left from Adado airport to Nairobi," Omar Mohammed Diirey, a regional administration official, told Reuters from Adado in central Somalia.

A pirate, who identified himself as Ahmed, told Reuters a ransom was dropped by air.

He said $800,000 had been received and another $140,000 went to brokers and handlers. Tebbutt was handed over to regional officials early on Wednesday after the payments were received, he said.

TV footage showed Tebbutt, who is in her 50s, wearing a green headscarf running towards a plane in a flat, barren landscape in Adado, Somalia. A man in a bush hat and safari jacket was seen accompanying her, his arm around her shoulder.

"I am very relieved to have been released," Tebbutt told Britain's ITV News.

"I am just happy to be released and I'm looking forward to seeing my son who successfully secured my release. I don't know how he did it, but he did. Which is great," she said.

"HARD MOMENTS"

Tebbutt said she had not been mistreated, but had endured "some very hard psychological moments".

She said she had been moved from house to house, especially after elite U.S. Navy SEALs launched a rescue operation in January to free two aid workers who had been kidnapped in October from the semi-autonomous Galmudug region.

"That night I was woken up and was moved around. It was very disorientating. To be woken in the middle of the night and moved and you'd stay there for a little while and then you'd move again," she said.

It was not clear who paid the ransom nor the amount. A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said: "Our position is that we do not pay ransoms and we do not facilitate concessions to hostage-takers."

Gunmen raided the remote Kiwayu Safari Village north of the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu in the early hours of September 11, shooting dead publishing executive David Tebbutt, 58, and escaping by speedboat with his wife to nearby Somalia.

George Moorhead, owner of the now-closed resort which boasted luxury bungalows overlooking the Indian Ocean, told Reuters he was relieved Tebbutt would be reunited with her son but also sad at the loss of her husband.

Moorhead said he had shared drinks with the couple the night they arrived at the resort - the eve of the attack - and described them as being in good spirits as they chatted about their son and the safari they had been on.

"It was all a sudden, abrupt chain of events afterwards and everything was shattered, their lives and everything," he said.

MILITANTS, PIRATES POSE MENACE

In the weeks after Tebbutt's kidnapping, attackers abducted a disabled French woman from Lamu and two Spanish aid workers from a refugee camp in the east African country.

Blaming Somali insurgents, Kenya deployed its forces across the border, scrambling to beef up security along the porous frontier and reassure a spooked tourism sector.

Al Shabaab denied it was behind the seizures and pirates, who usually focus on hijacking merchant ships and yachts off the lawless country's coast, said they had been holding Tebbutt.

A Kenyan man charged with robbery, violence and kidnapping in the Tebbutt's case has pleaded not guilty to the crimes.

A court hearing in Lamu on Wednesday was postponed for a month after a judge ordered the prosecution to make witness statements available to the accused man, Ali Babitu Kololo.

Kidnapping for ransom has chiefly been carried out by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean but Somali gunmen have attacked Westerners just across the border with Kenya on several occasions.

Piracy experts say cooperation between al Shabaab and pirate gangs has grown as the Islamist rebels become more desperate for funding.

Somalia has been in turmoil since warlords toppled dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. Somali government forces, Kenyan, Ethiopian and African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi are all battling the al Qaeda allied militants.

On Wednesday the militants said they detonated a car bomb in the heart of Mogadishu, wounding two people, and police said they were investigating a second suspicious vehicle in the city.

(Additional reporting by David Clarke and Humphrey Malalo in Nairobi, Benedict Mwaro in Lamu, Estelle Shirbon and Mohammed Abbas in London; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by David Clarke)

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