24 Jun 2012

Couple kidnapped by pirates freed

6:01 am on 24 June 2012

A South African couple kidnapped by Somali pirates 20 months ago aboard a yacht in the Indian Ocean have been freed.

Bruno Pelizzari told reporters the release followed a negotiated settlement.

He did not say if a ransom had been paid.

His partner Debbie Calitz is the sister of Auckland man, Kevin van der Merwe, who had been trying to raise money for a ransom.

Armed pirates hijacked the yacht Choizil in October 2010 off Tanzania.

Today we are happy to get our freedom back, Mr Pelizzari said at the presidential palace complex in the Somali capital Mogadishu.

Armed pirates hijacked the Choizil as it was about to enter the Mozambique channel south of the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam.

The sea bandits re-routed the boat north to Somalia where a French warship began tracking it because it was sailing suspiciously close to the coastline.

After attempts to contact the yacht failed, the warship launched a boarding team which came under fire from the yacht.

The Choizil ran aground, pirates took Pelizzari and Calitz ashore, but the captain refused to leave and was later rescued.

The pirate gang initially demanded $10 million from the pair's families.

The ransom demand dropped as low as $500,000 in March last year, according to a blog set up to highlight their plight, but was raised again as negotiations stumbled.