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20/10/2010

Somali gunmen free Zimbabwean hostage

MOGADISHU (AFP) – Somali gunmen who last week abducted a Zimbabwean working for British charity Save the Children released him early Wednesday, the hostage told AFP.

"I am well and free... and travelling back to Adado," Frans Barnard said on telephone, referring to the town where he was seized Thursday along with his Somali fixer, who was freed unharmed the day after their capture.

Witnesses and colleagues said heavily-armed men in three vehicles burst into a guesthouse housing aid workers from several organisations in the Adado region on Thursday night. Security guards put up no resistance and no shots were exchanged.

Save the Children spokeswoman Anna Ford earlier said the charity had been assessing the possibility of establishing a relief programme for malnourished children and their families in the area.

Local elders involved in negotiations leading to Barnard's release said the kidnappers were paid 100,000 dollars.

"The hostage finally got his freedom around 5:00 am local time, he was freed after elders negotiated," Mohamed Abdulahi, an elder said.

"The gunmen asked for 150,000 dollars to free the hostage but they were only paid 100,000," one of the negotiators said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The hostage was initially reported to have dual Zimbabwean-British nationality but this has not been confirmed. He was a security expert for the British aid organisation that was trying to set up a relief programme in Adado.

Nearly two decades of conflict has ruined the livelihoods of many Somalis, forcing them to camps for the displaced where they depend on humanitarian aid.

But several relief organisations have been forced out of the war-wracked country by the Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab insurgents who control large swathes of southern and central Somalia.

Gangs thriving on the lawlessness have often kidnapped foreign aid workers, resulting in many humanitarian groups pulling out foreign staff.

The region where the two were seized has been relatively calm, but borders an area controlled by Shebab Islamists to the south while Somali pirates operate to the east.

A British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, has been held hostage for almost a year in this part of Somalia after their yacht was captured in the Indian Ocean, off the Seychelles.

Somalia has not had a central authority since plunging into civil war in 1991 and has since been largely run by rival armed groups.

The Western-backed transitional government of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has been unable to exert nationwide authority and has been boxed into a few streets in the capital Mogadishu by relentless Shebab attacks.

The weak government's survival is dependent on a contingent of African Union troops that have stopped the Shebab's drive for a total take-over of Mogadishu.

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