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Somali pirates release British hostage

Tourist was held for six months after Kenya raid

ITV News via Reuters TV

British hostage Judith Tebbutt was escorted to a light aircraft following her release by her Somali kidnappers Wednesday.

LONDON — A British tourist seized by Somali raiders from a secluded resort on the Kenyan coast more than six months ago in an attack that claimed her husband’s life was set free by her captors Wednesday, ending a gripping drama that had helped fuel Kenya’s rationale for invading southern Somalia.

Judith Tebbutt, 56, praised the efforts of her son, Oliver, in getting her released in an interview with Britain’s ITV News, which was broadcast hours after British officials confirmed that she had been set free, apparently unharmed.

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“I’m looking forward to seeing my son, who successfully secured my release,’’ she said. “I don’t know how he did it, but he did.’’

Tebbutt was shown wearing a purple headscarf in a blue-walled room with what appeared to be a clothes stand in the background. The precise location of the interview in Somalia was not disclosed.

British officials declined to go into detail about the circumstances of her release.

“Our priority now is to get her to a place of safety,’’ the Foreign Office in London said in a statement.

Officials said she was on her way to Kenya from Somalia.

Somalis with knowledge of Tebbutt’s abduction said a ransom had been paid, but British officials declined to comment on the assertion. As a matter of public policy, the British government does not condone the payment of ransom or other inducements to hostage-takers. But British news reports said her family had met ransom demands to secure her release.

Tebbutt’s abduction was one of several kidnappings by Somali gunmen last year that Kenyan officials initially cited as justification for sending troops into Somalia on Oct. 16, arguing that they had to defend Kenya’s tourism industry. But soon afterward, the Kenyan government disclosed that the foray was planned much earlier, part of a covert strategy to penetrate Somalia and keep the violence in one of Africa’s most anarchic countries from spilling into one of Africa’s most stable.

“I’m really happy,’’ Tebbutt told ITV. “It’s just nice to be around other people. It’s been quite lonely. Seven months is a long time, and under the circumstances, with my husband passing away, made it harder. There were some very hard psychological moments, but I got through it. So I’m really relieved.’’

Gunmen seized Tebbutt and killed her husband, David Tebbutt, 58, at the $430-per-night Kiwayu Safari Lodge in September in one of a series of attacks at coastal resorts near the town of Lamu, one of Kenya’s best-known tourist destinations. The attackers arrived in the middle of the night, burst into the Tebbutt’s bungalow, killed David Tebbutt when he resisted, then fled with Tebbutt.

Western officials said at the time that she had been abducted by a pirate gang that was holding her deep within Somalia.

The raid was particularly alarming for both Kenyan officials and overseas visitors since it seemed to open an ominous new chapter in a saga of piracy in recent years, during which gunmen have hijacked dozens of ships and ransomed them for millions of dollars.

Worries about pirate attacks on land deepened in October when, three weeks after Tebbutt was taken, Somali gunmen staged another brazen attack, snatching a handicapped French tourist from a beachside bungalow on Manda Island near Lamu and escaping to Somalia. The woman was later reported to have died in captivity.

Asked whether a ransom had been paid for Tebbutt’s release, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Our position is that we do not pay ransoms and we do not facilitate concessions to hostage-takers.’’

The spokesman said Tebbutt’s case had been discussed some 20 times at the government’s emergency committee known as Cobra. The spokesman, speaking in return for anonymity under departmental rules, declined to comment on whether the British authorities had advised Tebbutt’s family not to pay a ransom.

“All I can say is that we have been in close contact throughout,’’ he said. “We have obviously been providing support to the family and been in close contact with the family throughout and have been meeting regularly to discuss the case.’’

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