July 16, 2009 / 5:24 PM / 11 years ago

Islamist rebels holding French hostages

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - One of Somalia’s militant Islamist rebel groups was holding two French security men on Wednesday after receiving them from abductors linked to the government, police said.

A hard-line Somali Islamist militant holds his gun at a checkpoint in northern Mogadishu, July 13, 2009. Somali government troops backed by African Union peacekeepers battled insurgents in clashes that killed at least 43 people in north Mogadishu, residents and officials said. REUTERS/Omar Faruk

Gunmen from an Islamist faction within President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s security forces seized the two in a Mogadishu hotel on Tuesday, then handed them to Hizbul Islam insurgents, senior police officer Abdiqadir Odweyne told Reuters.

Hizbul Islam was now arguing over the Frenchmen’s fate with another militant rebel group, al Shabaab, whom western security services view as al Qaeda’s proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state that has been mired in conflict since 1991.

“Al Shabaab wants to take the Frenchmen from Hizbul Islam, they are on the verge of fighting,” said Odweyne.

“Al Shabaab wants to kill the Frenchmen and Hizbul Islam refuses. The situation is not good.”

Spokesmen for both groups declined to comment on the case.

With the rebels battling government troops on a daily basis, Mogadishu is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and has a history of kidnappings of foreigners, mainly aid workers and journalists. Hostages are normally released for ransom.

“Hizbul Islam is holding a hot ember in their hands. They cannot throw it away and they cannot hold it,” analyst Hassan Hundubey told Reuters by telephone.

“If they hand over the hostages to Shabaab, they will spoil their name and ... if they hand them over to the government or hold them for other purposes, these two Islamist groups will fight ... The only way Hizbul Islam can survive is to hand over these men to independent negotiators.”

FRANCE DENIES JOURNALIST GUISE

The Somali government said the two Frenchmen were posing as reporters while working as security consultants to train presidential guards. Gunmen burst into a Mogadishu hotel on Tuesday and went door-to-door until they found them.

The police officer, Odweyne, said a government minister with links to the rebels was behind the abduction. The government has not responded to that, but vowed to help ensure a quick release.

A French official denied the two were posing as journalists.

“The two French counsellors were on an official mission to help the Somali government,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Frederic Desagneaux. “Their status was also official and was not that of journalists.”

Several French newspapers reported on Wednesday that the two kidnapped Frenchmen were agents for the DGSE, or secret services, and that they had pretended to be journalists.

Somali Defence Minister Mohamed Abdi Gandi told Radio France Internationale the motives for the abduction were financial.

“These are people who are armed and who carry out kidnappings to demand ransoms, but these are not political kidnappings,” he said.

The head of Paris-based Reporters without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard, said it would be scandalous if it was true the two French agents had pretended to be journalists.

“If this is confirmed, it is shocking,” he told Reuters.

“Journalists are already in the line of fire in Somalia.”

Slideshow (4 Images)

A more than two-year insurgency has killed at least 18,000 civilians and uprooted 1 million people in Somalia.

Captures of foreigners, however, generally garner world headlines in a way the daily death toll seldom does.

Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Abdiaziz Hassan in Nairobi; Thierry Leveque and Joseph Tandy in Paris; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Jack Kimball and Philippa Fletcher

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