MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali gunmen freed two European aid workers on Tuesday without receiving a ransom, after holding them hostage for nine days in one of the world’s most dangerous places for relief agencies.
Attacks on humanitarian staff in the Horn of Africa country have cut their ability to help in one of the world’s worst emergencies. More than 1 million Somalis have been uprooted by fighting in two years and 3 million survive on food aid.
Gunmen seized a Belgian doctor and Dutch nurse working for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) on April 19 in the central region of Bakol where the pair had been carrying out a nutrition study.
Dutchman Kees Keus told Reuters Television telephone he and his colleague had been held prisoner in the bush since then.
“We are happy and we are on our way to our families. We were released by the authorities and the elders of the area where MSF is working,” Keus said in an interview.
Dag Horntvedt, MSF’s interim head of mission for Somalia, said the charity was relieved the two men were safe and in good health.
“We are now working on getting the two reunited with their relatives and friends as quickly as possible, and giving them all the support they may need for dealing with their experiences,” Horntvedt said in a statement.
Sheikh Aden Yare, a leader of the al Shabaab rebels who control the area, said the pair had been released without conditions. His Islamist insurgent group had said its fighters would free the hostages by force if negotiations failed.
Shabaab, which Washington accuses of links to al Qaeda, controls large parts of central and southern Somalia and has invited international aid agencies into its territory.
“They are with us and we are going to Hudur to hand over the MSF officers,” Yare told Reuters. “This will not happen again.”
A Bakol elder involved in the talks with the gunmen said no ransom had been paid. The gunmen had initially demanded a payment of $1 million, then increased it to $4 million.
Kidnappings in Somalia, mired in civil conflict for 18 years, are usually blamed on clan militias or Islamist insurgents fighting the government and a small African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, in the capital Mogadishu.
The gunmen generally treat hostages relatively well in the hope of securing a sizeable ransom.
International donors pledged at least $213 million last week to bolster the Somali security forces and help pay for AMISOM.
The country has been in chaos since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other. President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s new administration is the 15th attempt to set up a central government since then.
Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mohamed and Reuters TV; Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Daniel Wallis