Britain’s navy chief hit back at claims his sailors were "cowards" for failing to intervene after a British couple were captured by Somali pirates saying they could not have put the civilians’ lives at risk.
Pirates have demanded a $7 million ransom for Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were kidnapped while they sailed their 38-foot (12-metre) yacht Lynn Rival in international waters north of the Seychelles at the end of October.
The couple said in a film broadcast on Nov. 20 their captors were losing patience and they feared being killed within a week.
The Ministry of Defence said the Royal Navy’s Wave Knight ship had located the couple’s yacht in the Indian Ocean days after their capture, and had watched them being transferred to another boat.
However the crew had not intervened in case they endangered the hostages, leading to criticism from some commentators.
"Once you have a hostage situation, your military options are inevitably limited," Admiral Mark Stanhope said.
"Had there been the opportunity to intervene while being at all sure of guaranteeing Rachel and Paul Chandlers’ safety, they would have done so," he said, adding the decision not to intervene was the "right one" in the circumstances.
A headline accompanying an opinion piece by commentator Max Hastings in the Daily Mail newspaper this week described Britain’s seaborne service as a "cowardly navy".
"What is the purpose of the Royal Navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea if it shows itself toothless?" Hastings wrote.
Stanhope, who was speaking at an event at London’s Chatham House think tank, said he took issue with "some of the emotional and scurrilous language being used to describe the actions of my sailors".
"They do not appreciate, and I do not like them, being branded cowards in certain quarters of the press," he said.
"The naval service is delivering operational success, all over the world, in everything from high-end war fighting in Afghanistan to search and rescue in Ayrshire."
Pirates have plagued the busy shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia for several years. Foreign warships from 16 nations are patrolling the area to try to prevent hijacks, but pirates still prey on ships far out in the Indian Ocean.