NAIROBI - Two French government agents abducted Tuesday from a hotel in Mogadishu have been turned over to militant insurgent groups, according to Somali government officials and other senior officials working in the country. The two groups, Hizbullah Islam and al-Shabaab, are reportedly fighting over who will take control of the hostages. Al-Shabaab, Somalia's most powerful insurgent group, is promising to kill the men.
The men were in Mogadishu to train the elite presidential guard and were kidnapped by gunmen believed to be tied to a prominent minister within the fragile Transitional Federal Government, known as the TFG, according to officials who declined to be named because they are not authorized to speak with the media.
The original purpose of the kidnapping was supposed to be financial not political, Somalia's Defense Minister Mohamed Abdi Gandi told Radio France Internationale.
"We don't know their names, but we know their affiliation and their group," he said. "These are people who are armed and who carry out kidnappings to demand ransoms, but these are not political kidnappings."
But according to the government, negotiations broke down last night. The gunmen then handed the hostages over to the insurgent group Hizbullah Islam, a group that is also considered extremist but is not as wide-spread or as brutal as al-Shabaab.
A senior Somali government official tells ABC News that one of the two French hostages seized Tuesday has now been handed over to the al Qaeda-linked al Shaabab group, after making a deal with the Islamist insurgent group Hizbollah Islam. The compromise ends a tense stand-off between Somalia's two largest insurgent groups.
"If Shabaab gets a hold of these guys, it's off with their heads," a Somali government official told ABC News.
The deputy spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry Frederic Desagneaux confirmed in a press conference that men were "on an official mission of assistance to the Somali government." French newspapers have reported that they were members of the DGSE, French intelligence services. Desagneaux did not give specific details about who the men are, but did deny that the French government instructed them to pose as journalists.
"Their status was also official and was not one of journalists," said Desagneaux. "We don't have any element authenticating the initial indication given locally that they would have taken advantage of another status than theirs."
Both Somali government officials and other officials working in Somalia confirmed to ABC News that the men said they were journalists as a cover for their mission. The hotel's manager also reportedly said that the two men registered as journalists at check-in.
"Pretending to be a journalist puts the real journalists in danger," says Soazig Dollete of Reporters Without Borders. "It's not that we are against authorities pretending to be something else for their safety and cover, but Somalia is already a very dangerous for foreign journalists. It's not a joke."
Somalia hasn't had a functioning government in nearly 20 years, and is considered to be a lawless country. The current government headed by moderate Islamist Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is currently locked in a fierce battle with insurgent groups. It's considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for foreigners and journalists. Humanitarian organizations have no international staff permanently based in the country.
At least five local journalists have been killed this year so far. Two foreign journalists, a Canadian and an Australian, kidnapped near Mogadishu last August remain in captivity.