Insurgents hold French agents in Mogadishu

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Two French security agents kidnapped from their hotel in Mogadishu have been handed over to hardline Islamist insurgents.

Mogadishu – Two French security agents kidnapped from their hotel in Mogadishu have been handed over to hardline Islamist insurgents, a Somali security official said Wednesday.

No group claimed responsibility for the abduction Tuesday of the two men, who were described by Paris as security consultants and were taken from their hotel rooms by gunmen wearing government uniforms.

"The two French hostages have now changed hands, they are held by Islamist rebels in Mogadishu. Talks with the government for their release are still ongoing," the high-ranking security official said on condition of anonymity.

He did not specify whether the pair, whom the French foreign ministry said were on a mission to provide security assistance to the Somali government, were being held by the Shebab or Hezb al-Islam.

Neither group was immediately available for comment.

The Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab control large parts of central and southern Somalia, while Hezb al-Islam is a more political group led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, once an ally of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

On 7 May, both insurgent groups launched a vast military offensive against Sharif, who was elected in January and received the backing of the international community.

If the pair's transfer to one of the two hardline Islamist movements is confirmed, their kidnapping could take a more political turn.

The insurgents accuse Sharif's administration of being a puppet of the major Western powers, which they often refer to as invaders and Christian crusaders.

Somalia's defence minister, Mohammed Addi Gandhi, had said earlier he believed the two hostages were not held by either the Shebab or Hezb al-Islam, but only by a criminal group seeking ransom money.

"We have information on the people behind this kidnapping. We don't know their names but we know to whom they belong, their group," Gandhi told Radio France Internationale.

"They are an armed group. They might want a ransom, but it's not a political kidnapping," he added. "They're people who profit from the violence in Mogadishu."

In Mogadishu, Interior Minister Sheikh Abdulkadir Ali Omar on Wednesday denied claims by an official from the country's National Security Agency that the two were taken by interior ministry forces.

"Any information indicating Somali government forces are involved the case is baseless and propaganda," Omar told reporters after Tuesday's claim.

According to an anonymous Somali official, the French pair had been invited by the defence ministry as part of a mission to provide training to the government's security forces.

Around 500 Somali forces are to be trained in Djibouti, home to France's largest overseas military base and the only US army base on the African continent.

The training, initially set to begin in September, was brought forward by one month due an escalation of violence in Somalia.

Sharif was elected in January but has since failed to assert his authority on the country and faced a massive insurgent offensive in the capital and the central regions since early May.

The young cleric has been largely confined to the presidential palace, under the protection of African Union peacekeepers.

His government has called for increased foreign military assistance but the French pair's kidnapping once again underlined the risks of direct foreign involvement in the Horn of Africa nation.

The two had registered at the Sahafi hotel in Mogadishu as journalists, sparking the ire of Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

"Being a journalist is not a cover, it is a profession," it said. "They were on an official mission and had no need of cover. Their behaviour endangers journalists in a region where media personnel are already in danger."

In Paris, a foreign ministry spokesman denied the two men were pretending to be journalists.

"Being on an official mission, their status was also official and not that of journalists," said Frederic Desagneaux.

Six Somali journalists have been killed since January alone and kidnappers have held two foreign freelance journalists -- Canada's Amanda Lindhout and Australia's Nigel Brennan -- since August last year.

AFP / Expatica

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