Somalia sends troops to rescue aid workers nabbed by pirates

Soldiers for the transitional Somali government in Mogadishu have increasingly taken on pirate gangs, as they extend their authority outside of Mogadishu.

Three Kenyan aid workers have been kidnapped in the central Somali town of Galkayo, and Somali authorities say they have sent soldiers to rescue the aid workers from the pirate-controlled town of Garaad on the Somali coast.

Swedish aid agency International Aid Services, which helps Somali communities to developing safe sources of drinking water, functioning sanitation systems, and reliable sources of food, confirmed that three of its workers had been kidnapped near Galkayo by armed men.

Said Abdi Farah, the commissioner of Galkayo town says that three armed guards were wounded during a short period of clashes between the kidnappers and Puntland armed officials.

A local staff member from International Aid Services was shot and seriously injured, according to local NGO sources in Galkayo.

“Security officials told me that the team was travelling between Margaago village and Baadweyn about 45 km from Galkayo," Mr. Farah said. "Our forces tried to save the aid workers but pirates have used heavy weapons to kill and seize foreigners. We deployed our armed forces around those areas and we will try to rescue the kidnapped workers.” 

Khalaf Haji, a resident in Garaad, says that an increase in the movements of pirates with vehicles has been noticed around the village since the abduction of workers. “I don’t know if they are keeping the foreigners here or not,” he said.

Armed forces from Puntland, a semi-autonomous region along the northern coast of Somalia, have been sent out of Galkayo to rescue IAS workers.

“We believe that pirates are not far from here and we will seize the aid workers soon,” Jama Mohamed Ahmed, Mudug police commander told the Monitor.

Kidnappings remain a crucial source of income for pirate gangs in Somalia, a country that has had no effective government since 1991. Like the gangs who take to the seas to capture commercial freighters and their crews, pirate gangs in central Somalia and in the Puntland region hold their victims for ransom, conducting negotiations through third-party mediators both inside Somalia and in the Somali diaspora living in the West.

Ransom negotiations can be lengthy, lasting anywhere from just a few days to more than a year. The Chandlers, a retired British couple captured aboard their yacht near the Seychelles Islands in 2009 were eventually released in Nov. 2010.

Soldiers for the transitional Somali government in Mogadishu have increasingly taken on pirate gangs, as they extend their authority outside of Mogadishu, and together with allied forces of the African Union, Britain, and the United States, Somalis have begun to launch rescue operations to release those who are kidnapped.

Just last week, four foreign aid workers for the Norwegian Refugee Committee were successfully rescued in a combined operation by Somali and Kenyan armed forces, near the town of Afmadow.

Two Spaniards, kidnapped from the Doctors Without Borders facility at Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex along the Somali border, were kidnapped in October 2011, and remain in captivity.

While there is no direct relationship between pirate gangs and the anti-government Islamist fighters called Al-Shabab, the growing confidence of the Somali government and its recent battlefield successes in dislodging Shabab fighters in south central Somalia affects criminals and Islamists alike. It is the lack of any real governing authority that has allowed both Islamists and pirates to thrive in Somalia, and any return of governance is a threat to both.

There are signs that Shabab, in addition to losing territory to the Somali government, has begun to lose some of their fighters due to defections. According to two recent Shabab defectors, interviewed by Associated Press, Shabab’s loss of control over market traders in Mogadishu and other “tax” revenues have taken a heavy financial toll on the organization. Many Shabab fighters receive only one meal per day, the defectors told AP.

A spokesman for IAS called for the three aid workers’ release.

"The team was travelling in two vehicles including an escort car with three armed Puntland Police Officers who were overpowered by the attackers," IAS Executive Director Leif Zetterlund said in a statement, quoted by China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency. "One local staff was shot and critically injured and three Kenyan expatriates were kidnapped and taken to an unknown destination."

Staff writer Scott Baldauf contributed to this story from Boston. 

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