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Somali gunmen free aid workers

MOGADISHU, Apr 28 – Somali gunmen on Tuesday freed two European aid workers kidnapped nine days ago in the lawless country’s southern region, a local elder and a humanitarian worker said.

The doctors, a Dutch national and a Belgian employed by the French aid group Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF), were seized by the gunmen while on their way to Hodur, a town near the Ethiopian border.

Local elders and Islamist officials in the region had been in talks with the abductors to free them and the gunmen had demanded ransom and threatened to kill the aid workers if an armed rescue was attempted.

"After days of tough talks, we finally succeeded in freeing the hostages and now they are in the hands of the elders," said Hassan Mohamed, an elder involved in the negotiations.

"They have been officially transferred from the hands of the kidnappers," he added, but did not give details of the talks.

A spokesman for MSF in Belgium, Michel Peremans said he was unable to confirm the release or comment at this stage.

But a local MSF worker, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, confirmed their release.

"The aid workers are free now and they will come back to Hodur soon with the elders and the local Islamist authorities," he said.

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The gunmen moved the hostages several times to different villages in the region as talks to free them were underway.

The kidnappers were from the same group that abducted four aid workers employed by the United Nations on March 16 in Wajid, a major UN aid hub located only 90 kilometres (55 miles) from Hodur.

The four were released hours after being snatched, following efforts by local elders and Shebab officials.

Kidnappings of foreign aid workers and journalists by ransom-seeking armed groups happen frequently in conflict-wracked Somalia.

UN agencies attempting to deliver food aid to 3.25 million Somalis — nearly half the population — have been repeatedly targeted.

Four European aid workers employed by the French charity Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger) and their two Kenyan pilots have been held hostage since November.

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