MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali gunmen stormed into a Mogadishu hotel on Tuesday and kidnapped two French officials working as security advisers for the Somali government, witnesses and officials said.
A Somali government official, who asked not to be named, said the two Frenchmen had been posing as reporters for their own protection.
“They were security consultants who arrived in Somalia to train State House security guards, not journalists,” the official said.
The French Foreign Ministry confirmed that two French officials working as security advisers to the Somali government had been kidnapped.
A ministry statement issued in Paris said the men were on an “official mission” when they were seized by a group of armed men. “They were providing help in security matters to the transitional federal government of President Sheikh Sharif,” it added.
“As soon as we found out about this, all the state services concerned were mobilised, including our embassy in Nairobi, which deals with Somalia,” the statement said.
With hardline Islamist insurgents battling government troops on a daily basis, Mogadishu is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The coastal capital has a history of kidnappings of foreign aid-workers and journalists.
Several gunmen, some in uniform, entered the Sahafi Hotel, threatened the guards and led the two men away from their rooms, hotel manager Mohamed Hassan Gaafaa told Reuters.
The hotel is popular with ministers in the government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Several of them live there and were in their rooms during the early morning raid.
It was not immediately clear who had taken the men, but a pro-government Islamist militia blamed dissident troops.
“Government soldiers who have mutinied were involved in kidnapping the two French citizens,” militia spokesman Abdirisak Qeylow told Reuters.
“Negotiation is under way for their release. Maybe they are demanding ransom, I don’t know the exact amount. But we are doing our best for them to be released soon.”
Foreigners captured in Somalia are generally released unharmed for substantial ransom payments after period that can last days or months.
A police officer, who did not want to be named, said they had captured one of three cars used by the gunmen but did not know where the French nationals had been taken.
Another witness at the hotel, who asked not to be named, said the gunmen, some dressed in uniform similar to that worn by Somali government troops, drove towards Mogadishu’s Bakara market, an Islamist stronghold.
Hardline Islamist insurgents control all but a few districts of the capital. A more than two-year insurgency has killed at least 18,000 civilians and uprooted 1 million.
French diplomats in the region could not be reached for comment.
Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mohamed in Hargeisa and Christian Balmer in Paris; Writing by Wangui Kanina and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Giles Elgood