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French agent arrives home

NAIROBI, Aug 27 – The French agent who escaped the clutches of his Somali captors arrived back in Paris on Thursday as insurgents holding his partner said they would put him on trial as a spy.

A top member of the Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab group holding the second agent said the man would be tried under Sharia Law.

"We know that the other French secret agent has gone free without judgment, but I tell you the one we are holding still waits for Islamic Sharia court that will decide his fate as we already said," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"He cannot escape. We keep him in a heavily-guarded place and he has very little chances of escaping," he added by telephone.

Somali Information Minister Dahir Mohamud Gele said the government was working for the release of the second French agent.

The French authorities maintain that the two men were on an advisory mission to the Somali transitional government when they were snatched from their Mogadishu hotel on July 14. Several witnesses said they had presented themselves as journalists.

The escaped agent, who has given his name to interviewers as Marc Aubriere, flew out of Mogadishu to a French military base in neighbouring Djibouti and then on to Paris, where he arrived around 1:30pm (1130 GMT), an official with knowledge of the operation told AFP.

Aubriere said he had escaped while his captors slept and made his way across Mogadishu in darkness to the safety of the presidential palace, guided by the stars.

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He had fresh scratches on his arms from the cactus he scurried through during his escape, a New York Times correspondent who interviewed him said.

Aubriere had been held for six weeks by the Hezb al-Islam militia group, which has joined forces with the Shebab in a bid to overthrow Somalia’s weak transitional government.

Both Hezb al-Islam and Somali government officials said on Wednesday that Abubriere had not escaped but had been released after a ransom had been paid.

The Shebab is seen as the more radical of the two groups. Hezb al-Islam, the groups which was holding Aubriere, is a more political movement led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former ally of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

Each group took one of the hostages shortly after they were abducted.

Somali government moves to gain the release of the second hostage are  hampered by its lack of control over much of the Horn of Africa country, following a major offensive by the insurgents which began in May.

The hardline groups want to topple Sharif and are fiercely opposed to the presence of African Union peacekeepers backing the transitional federal government.

In recent months, armed Somali gangs have carried out scores of kidnappings, often targeting foreigners or Somalis working with international organisations to demand ransoms.

Three aid workers were kidnapped in northern Kenya in late July, while two journalists — a Canadian woman and an Australian man — have been held hostage for a year.

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