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Negotiations start for French reporter in Somalia

(Adds details, Mogadishu attack; changes dateline, pvs NAIROBI)

BOSASSO, Somalia, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Somali authorities started negotiating on Monday with the kidnappers of a French cameraman seized in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) condemned the kidnapping of Gwen Le Gouil in Somalia's northern Puntland region on Sunday, saying it underscored the precarious nature of journalism there.

Eight local journalists have been killed in the Horn of Africa nation this year alone, making it the most dangerous country in the world for reporters after Iraq, RSF said.

"The security committee and clan elders are engaged in dialogue with the kidnappers, and we are very optimistic that the French journalist will be released as soon as possible," Deputy Bari region governor Yusuf Mumin Bidde told reporters. Bidde said the Puntland administration would not allow the kidnappers to extort a ransom.

"We don't know exactly how much they are asking. The first demand was $70,000, then sometimes it's $35,000," said Jean Laurent, a colleague of Le Gouil's in Nairobi from their small TV company Cargocult Production.

The identity of the group holding him was unknown.

Somali kidnappers are known to treat their captives well and almost never kill them, viewing them as an investment on which they expect a return in the form of ransom.

Many foreigners in Somalia run foul of local clans by failing to seek permission to travel through their territories.

French diplomats in the region had no comment.

SHOTS FIRED

Laurent confirmed Le Gouil was in Somalia working on a piece for the Franco-German TV network Arte Television, that NUSOJ said was about human trafficking of African migrants to Saudi Arabia through Yemen.

"We denounce this kidnapping of ... Le Gouil, and we demand his immediate and unconditional release," Omar Faruk Osman, NUSOJ secretary general, said in the statement.

On Sunday night, the kidnappers fired at Puntland troops who tried to secure Le Gouil's release, Osman said.

He urged Puntland authorities to work for "a peaceful release...and not to use any force that can risk the life of Gwen Le Gouil."

Known for its relative stability in a country plagued by lawlessness, semi-autonomous Puntland has become increasingly associated with kidnappings, hijackings and piracy.

In May, two foreign aid workers were seized and later released after negotiations between their captors and clan elders, while in October gunmen hijacked a cargo plane carrying khat, a lucrative narcotic leaf.

Elsewhere in Somalia, three people died in Mogadishu's main market, Bakara, when government troops and their Ethiopian allies clashed with insurgents, residents said.

Rebels attacked government positions in north Mogadishu, sparking heavy artillery exchanges. Bakara is thought to be a rebel stronghold and is often the site of fierce clashes. (Additional reporting by Bryson Hull and George Obulutsa in Nairobi, Aweys Yusuf in Mogadishu; Editing by Keith Weir)

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