Somalia's transitional government has called for the unconditional release of two French military advisors kidnapped Tuesday in the Somali capital Mogadishu. Both men are now believed to be held captive by an Islamist extremist group with ties to al-Qaida.
VOA has learned that a second French hostage has been handed over to Somalia's al-Shabab insurgents, a day after al-Shabab's ally, Hisbul Islam, was accused by the Somali government of holding the men.
Hisbul Islam has neither confirmed nor denied taking part in the kidnapping of the two French men. But there were widespread reports Wednesday that tensions were escalating between Hisbul Islam and al-Shabab over who would take control of the hostages.
Al-Shabab is an allied extremist group with ties to al-Qaida. Its fighters control a large area of southern Somalia and have a record of killing anyone accused of being a spy or a Christian.
According to Somali sources and a senior government official speaking on the condition of anonymity, the French hostages were taken Tuesday to a Mogadishu safe-house guarded by Hisbul Islam. Al-Shabab threatened to declare war on Hisbul Islam unless the group handed over the men.
The sources say Hisbul Islam gave one of the hostages to al-Shabab on Thursday to avoid starting a bloody battle between the two allies. It is not known what circumstances caused Hisbul Islam to hand over the second hostage.
Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke had earlier called for the unconditional release of the hostages, saying there is no religion that condones the kidnapping of innocent people.
The prime minister said Hisbul Islam should return the men unconditionally if the group does not want to damage its religious and political reputation in Somalia.
Hisbul Islam is a coalition of militant Islamist-nationalist groups formed in February to oppose the government. Since then, al-Shabab and Hisbul Islam have fought side-by-side in efforts to overthrow the U.N.-backed government of Islamist President Sharif Sheik Ahmed.
The fighting between government forces and insurgents has killed and wounded hundreds of people and has uprooted more than 200,000 people from the capital. But the two insurgent groups have differing agendas and the alliance has long been viewed as one of opportunism rather than shared ideals and goals.
About a month ago, the leader of Hisbul Islam, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, angered al-Shabab by announcing that his group had decided to participate in peace talks with the government. It is unclear how the current hostage drama will affect those talks, if there have been any talks at all.
On Tuesday, nearly a dozen gunmen dressed in government uniforms kidnapped the two French nationals from the Sahafi Hotel in Mogadishu, where they had been staying for more than a week reportedly posing as journalists.
The French Foreign Ministry said the men were on an official mission to provide assistance to the Somali government. French newspapers have reported that the men are French intelligence agents sent to Mogadishu to train their Somali counterparts.
It is still not known who carried out the abduction and whether they were hired to kidnap the men or had intended to keep the men for ransom.
Some initial reports alleged the gunmen were clan militiamen with ties to Somalia's Interior Minister Abdulkadir Ali Omar. It is believed that the pick-up truck used in the kidnapping belonged to the interior minister. The Somali official has denied any involvement.