REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Two Western aid workers, including an American, were abducted Tuesday in central Somalia, the latest foreigners to be taken captive in the region in recent weeks.
A 60-year-old Danish man and a 32-year-old American woman working for the Danish De-mining Group, a humanitarian organization that helps communities remove land mines, were kidnapped Tuesday near the airport in the city of Galkayo.
"We have sent security forces to block all routes to stop them," Ahmed Mahmud, the deputy secretary of the Galmudug region, told the Agence France-Presse news agency. He said the gunmen were reportedly heading southeast toward the coastal town of Hobyo, a base for pirate gangs.
Two foreigners have died in the recent abductions. David Tebbutt, a 58-year-old Briton, was shot to death last month by Somali gunmen in the Kenyan coastal resort of Kiwayu Safari Village. The assailants took his wife, Judith, 56, to southern Somalia, apparently for ransom. And Marie Dedieu, a wheelchair-bound 66-year-old Frenchwoman living in Kenya, died in Somalia after being kidnapped and taken there by Somali gunmen earlier this month.
The motives for Tuesday's kidnapping were not clear, as was the case with the abduction early this month of two Spanish aid workers with Doctors Without Borders from a refugee camp in Kenya.
However, kidnappings of foreigners and piracy of foreign ships for ransom have become commonplace in Somalia, an anarchic state riven by clan warfare that has not had a central government for two decades. The country is home to pirate gangs and Islamic insurgents, including Al Shabab, an Islamic rebel group fighting the U.N.-backed Somali government. The militants control much of southern Somalia.
The Kenyan government has blamed Al Shabab for the kidnappings and launched a military incursion into neighboring Somalia just over a week ago, planning to keep its troops there until the threat from the militants is reduced. However it is not clear that Al Shabab is responsible for the kidnappings, rather than clans or criminal gangs. Nor is it clear whether Al Shabab is linked to pirate gangs.
Galkayo is not controlled by Al Shabab, suggesting that another group is likely responsible.
[Updated, 1:55 p.m., Oct. 25: On Tuesday, Reuters news service reported that police arrested a man with a cache of weapons in a low-income neighborhood near the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Authorities said the suspect had 13 grenades and six guns and ran a terror cell, according to the news agency. The arrest came a day after two grenade blasts hit the capital in what was widely believed to be further retaliation by Al Shabab.]
Abductions of aid workers have compounded the difficulties faced by humanitarian agencies delivering food aid to starving Somalis. Fighting around the capital, Mogadishu, and Kenya's military incursion in the south have made aid operations even more dangerous.
Doctors Without Borders suspended a measles vaccination campaign in Mogadishu because of heavy fighting late last week. Measles, cholera and diarrhea are major killers of malnourished children. Somalia is facing its worst famine in two decades.
The United Nations estimates that more than 13 million people in East Africa need food assistance, with Somalia hardest hit because of drought, conflict and the expulsion of many aid agencies by Al Shabab last year.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Security forces in Kenya speak with residents in a village near the border with Somalia, where two Spanish aid workers kidnapped from Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp were seen with their captors, in an Oct. 15 file photo. Two more aid workers were kidnapped Tuesday in central Somalia. Credit: Tony Karumba / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.