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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 06:11 GMT 07:11 UK
Somalia's kidnapping industry
security escort in Mogadishu
Armed escorts are a fact of life in Mogadishu

The regularity of kidnappings in the Somali capital Mogadishu is a sign of continuing chaos in the war-ravaged country.

The kidnappings are a blot on the country's image abroad and increase the suffering of a population afflicted by 12 years of lawlessness.

Since January gunmen have abducted a United Nations employee who was released after a few days, a minister's bodyguard who managed to escape, and the head of a military court.

In protest at the kidnapping of one of its Somali employees, the UN recently decided to suspend all operations in Mogadishu, including a major polio vaccination campaign in one of the few countries where the disease is still a real menace.

'Never pay ransom'

On 28 April, Mohammed Ali Abukar, a UN Development Programme co-ordinator and former lecturer in economics at Mogadishu University, was on a bus going home from work when armed men stormed the vehicle and took him away in a van.

Mogadishu police chief Colonel Abdi Hassan Awale
Mogadishu police chief: No ransom negotiations
The gunmen demanded a ransom of about $10,000.

Financial gain is the motive behind almost all cases of kidnapping.

"The UN will never pay any ransom to release hostages," says Salah Garad Omar, the UN's head of security in Mogadishu.

Since Mr Abukar's kidnapping, he has been going around all the Somali capital's FM radio stations trying to get this message across.

"If they continue paying a ransom, even half of the ransom, then it will be their kids' turn to be abducted outside school. That will hurt the poor people," Mr Omar has said.

Powerful tribe

The kidnappers have been calling the UN several times a day since the abduction.

It would become big business if we started paying. It is better to kill the kidnappers, even the people who have been kidnapped, if we can't help it

Mogadishu police chief Abdi Hassan Awale

Despite Mr Abukar's poor health - high blood pressure and diarrhoea - the gunmen have refused him access to a doctor.

In Mogadishu, people think they know who these men are.

People believe that the kidnappers belong to the same powerful clan as the city's police chief and Osman Ali Ato, one of the country's main warlords.

They believe that these men have been involved in past kidnappings - that they have become specialists in the field.


Clan elders are often called into action to try to get a hostage released.

polio vaccination in Baidoa, southern Somalia
The UN has suspended polio vaccinations
As mediators, they sometimes pay a quarter of the ransom, ironically to cover the kidnappers' expenses - food and security - so all parties can end the kidnapping with some dignity.

Kidnappings of aid officials or international workers attract a lot of publicity as high ransoms are demanded.

But in Mogadishu, abduction can be a part of everyday disputes.

"You can be kidnapped because you haven't paid for your qat (a mild narcotic plant), or the rent of your house, or your car," explains the capital's police chief, Colonel Abdi Hassan Awale.

"These are not the kidnappings that the international community hears about. Sometimes even a lady who owes $20 or $50 to another lady gets kidnapped."

Colonel Awale accuses the UN of being unwilling to share information to try and get Mr Abukar released.

He also claims that, in the past, the UN has shot itself in the foot by hiring militiamen who then turned against it - instead of using the official police force.

Private armies

His 5,000 unpaid and poorly motivated men may not inspire much confidence among outsiders, and his hardline position against negotiations may also worry those who would seek his help.

"It would become big business if we started paying", says Colonel Awale.

"It is better to kill the kidnappers, even the people who have been kidnapped, if we can't help it.

"Although in the case of Mr Abukar the kidnappers are from my clan it doesn't matter. Since they became kidnappers, they are my enemies," Colonel Awale said.

The kidnapping business is very much alive.

Foreigners visiting Mogadishu have to organise a private armed escort which follows their every move from the minute they land at one of the airstrips around the capital.

Visitors suffer from constant fear - anything can happen at any time.


Terrorist haven?

See also:

07 May 02 | Africa
03 Apr 02 | Africa
26 Feb 02 | Africa
13 Dec 01 | Africa
13 Nov 01 | Africa
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