AFP - Two French security agents kidnapped in Mogadishu have been split up and are being held by separate insurgent groups, complicating intensive negotiations for their release, officials said Thursday.
"The Shebab party took one of the two hostages and the other is in the hands of the Hezb al-Islam, but we're in negotiations with them and we're hoping for a positive result," Somali social affairs minister Mohammed Ali Ibrahim said.
Speaking to the France 24 news channel, the minister also said that the pair, who were snatched from their hotel on Tuesday while on a mission to support military capacity-building, were in good health.
He said that the two hostages were being held in the capital and that the prime minister had spoken to one of them "to reassure him".
"Talks involving all the concerned parties are under way, there is still hope of a quick release," an official close to Somalia's president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Sources close to the case in the region said that a French envoy, whose identity was not revealed, had arrived in Mogadishu to lead the negotiations.
When contacted by AFP in Paris, the French foreign ministry did not confirm.
The Shebab are an Al Qaeda-inspired group that controls large parts of Somalia while Hezb al-Islam is a more political movement led by a former Sharif ally, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.
Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Omar said the kidnapping had monetary motivations and urged the groups holding the French agents not to politicise the situation.
"So far, it remains a monetary issue, not a political one," he told AFP. "As concerns Hezb al-Islam, it is essential that they facilitate the release of the two men to show that kidnapping is not a political tool."
Several aid workers and journalists have been kidnapped in the lawless Horn of Africa country over the past two years, generally with the payment of a ransom the hostage takers' only motivation.
The insurgents accuse Sharif's administration of being a puppet of the major Western powers, which they often refer to as invaders and Christian crusaders.
Hezb al-Islam chief Sheikh Aweys has clearly stated that he wanted to topple Sharif, who was elected in January but has been unable to assert his authority across the country.
Sheikh Aweys and the Shebab are demanding the complete withdrawal of the estimated 4,300 African Union peacekeepers in Somalia, who are Sharif's last rempart against the massive insurgent offensive launched on May 7.
According to an anonymous Somali official, the French pair had been invited by the defence ministry as part of a mission to provide training to the government's security forces.
Around 500 Somali forces are to be trained in Djibouti, home to France's largest overseas military base. Djibouti also hosts the only US army base on the African continent.
The training, initially set to begin in September, was brought forward by one month due an escalation of violence in Somalia.
The programme was a direct result of a donor conference held in Brussels on April 23 in which 213 million dollars were pledged to help Sharif's government.
On the same day, Sheikh Aweys returned from Eritrean exile to Somalia and launched a joint offensive with Shebab two weeks later.
Sharif has since stressed that military assistance was more urgent than ever but the French pair's kidnapping once again underlined the risks of direct foreign involvement in Somalia, already the scene of several Western fiascos.