MOGADISHU, Somalia – About 25 masked gunmen armed with machine-guns kidnapped two European aid workers in central Somalia on Sunday, aid workers and a witness said.
Michel Peremans, a spokesman for the Belgian chapter of Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known by its English name Doctors Without Borders, confirmed that a Dutch and a Belgian staff member of his relief agency were missing in the Bakool region, where the attack occurred.
But for security reasons he declined to say whether they had been taken hostage.
“When we lose contact with teams we can’t give much information because it can give problems afterwards,” he said. “I hope you can understand that this is too delicate, too problematic at this stage.”
Witness Abdirahman Isaq was in the convoy when it was stopped as it travelled between Radhure village and the town of Wajid in central Somalia.
The group of kidnappers, with cloth wrapped around their lower faces, motioned for his vehicle filled with clan elders to continue but captured the two foreigners.
Isaq said the aid workers did not initially appear afraid. Roadblocks where militias extort money and check for rival gunmen are common in lawless Somalia.
Isaq said other clan elders had informed him the two had made radio contact with their base in Somalia to confirm the kidnapping. The two were working in Bakool, a central region near the Ethiopian border and far from the coastline where Somalia’s pirate gangs are based.
The capture of aid workers has long been a common problem in Somalia, often motivated by kidnappers demanding ransoms.
There is no indication that such kidnappings are linked to a recent surge in piracy off Somalia. But the lucrative ransoms pirates have received from ship owners may have emphasized the value of foreigners as hostages in a country where nearly half the population is dependent on foreign aid.
Not all attacks on aid workers are financially motivated. Some are political: the government has accused them of helping insurgents and the insurgents have accused them of being spies. According to the UN, a total of 35 aid workers were killed in Somalia in 2008 and 26 abducted.
The Bakool region, where the two Medecins Sans Frontieres workers were seized, is under the control of an Islamist militia that is fighting Somalia’s weak western-backed government. The organization has around 1,500 staff members in Somalia, mostly Somalian nationals.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991. The coup sparked a number of clan-based clashes and the country has been riven between competing militias ever since.