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10.27.11

Aid Workers' Pirate Nightmare

A U.S. aid worker and her Danish counterpart are still missing in Somalia after being kidnapped by Al-Shabab, an al Qaeda affiliate. Margot Kiser on the pair’s tale of betrayal and violence.

After they finished their workshop on land-mine hazard reduction early Tuesday afternoon, the aid workers hurried to catch a flight to Nairobi, out of war-torn Somalia. For safety’s sake, the groupa 32-year-old American woman, a 60-year-old Danish man, and a Somali man of undisclosed agewas riding in a three-vehicle convoy, accompanied by a team of bodyguards. All the same, they didn’t want darkness to catch them on the notoriously unsecured road to the airport that serves the disputed city of Galkayo.

They never made it.

Later that afternoon, their nongovernmental organization, the Danish Demining Group, announced that the workers had been kidnapped. Around 3:15 that afternoon, at least 10 armed militiamen in two Toyota Hilux SUVs had intercepted the convoy near the airport. The gunmen seized the Westerners, and sped off with them, reportedly heading toward the town of Wasil in the pirate-infested region of Mudug. Local authorities suspect that the kidnappers were pirates from the Saad clan. The abductions make a total of six Westerners who have abducted by Somali gunmen since September, including four who were captured across the border in Kenya: a British tourist, a retired Frenchwoman, and two Spanish employees of Doctors Without Borders.

The American aid worker, a regional educational supervisor for the Danish Demining Group’s community safety program, has been identified by the blog Somalia Report as Jessica Buchanan, a former fourth-grade teacher from Rosslyn, Va. At this writing there has been no independent verification of her identity, and the names of her two companions remain undisclosed. The aid group, which specializes in clearing land mines and other unexploded ordnance from former conflict zones, has been operating in that part of Somalia since 2007.

The kidnappers quickly released the Somali aid worker. On Wednesday the Demining Group’s parent organization, the Danish Refugee Council, announced that local police had detained him for questioning. “His role in the incident will be further investigated," the DRC said. At least four of the bodyguards were also said to be in custody. One of those held by police, a man identified as the head bodyguard, Abdirisak Main Sheikh Dhere, was quoted as telling Somali Report that he was the mastermind behind the kidnappings and had secretly collaborated with a group of Somali pirates.

Strange and unpredictable things often happen in the lawless town of Galkayo. The city straddles the line between the pirate-dominated northeastern third of SomaliaPuntland, as it’s knownand its neighbor to the south, the self-declared autonomous state of Galmudug, where distinctions are blurred between pirates and the Islamic extremists who have been fighting for control of Somalia since 1991. "Galmudug is crawling with Al-Shabab elements and militias that support them, in addition to pirates," says a U.S.-based authority on piracy and international crime.

“Galmudug is crawling with Al Qaeda and pirates affiliated with Al-Shabab.”

Puntland and Galmudug have repeatedly battled for control of the city. Although Puntland has provided security assistance for the city, it remains an inland pirate stronghold and the scene of heavy Al-Shabab fighting. For its part, Galmudug also tries to maintain at least a semblance of law and order in its territory. State officials have vowed to find the captors and rescue the aid workers. “We have sent security forces to block all routes to stop them,” Galmadug’s deputy security minister, Ahmed Mahmud, assured reporters in Galkayo. The troops have been authorized to use force if necessary, he said.

On Wednesday, Somalia Report said the Danish Demining Group hostages had been spotted in the town of Amara, an inland town where Somali pirates have taken Western hostages in the past. Meanwhile there has been little public word of the other four Westerners—other than the Frenchwoman, Marie Dedieu, who is believed dead. A cancer patient, she required medication every four hours. Although French authorities made repeated efforts to get the medicine to her, Dedieu’s captors refused to cooperate. Four days after her abduction, she’s said to have fallen into a coma and died.

Efforts continue for the release of the remaining hostages. In Copenhagen, Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal said his government is following the situation minute by minute. Nevertheless, he stressed, “We do not negotiate with people who take hostages.” He didn’t explain what the alternative might be.