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Somali Gunmen Hold Foreign Hostages for Second Day

Somali gunmen held hostage two aid workers, a French woman and a British man, in the capital Mogadishu for a second day Thursday as negotiations continued for their release. French aid agency Action Contre la Faim said its employees, French administrator Francoise Deutsch, 46, and Briton Jonathan Ward, 31, a logistics worker, were believed to be unharmed.

``All I can confirm is that these people are still hostages, there is a process of negotiation continuing and we understand they are in good health,'' ACF spokeswoman Beatrice d'Ervau told Reuters from the agency's Paris headquarters.

In Paris, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said France and Britain agreed to join efforts to secure their release. He said the ministry and the British Foreign Office were closely monitoring developments and keeping in constant contact with ACF in Paris and Nairobi.

The hostages were snatched from their compound in the capital early Wednesday by around 20 heavily armed militiamen.

A third fieldworker escaped to safety. Somalia has been without a central government since 1991 and is carved up into fiefdoms ruled by feuding militia factions.

It is one of the world's poorest countries, but violence and lawlessness make it an extremely dangerous place for aid agencies to operate. Most foreign embassies have closed, and a U.S-led international peacekeeping mission pulled out in 1995 after suffering heavy casualties at the hands of the militia.

Mogadishu is now split broadly in two, and residents of the city said the hostages were being held in an area controlled by Osman Ali Atto, a henchman of warlord Hussein Aideed.

A local newspaper said Ali Atto had denied involvement in the kidnapping but had admitted the abduction ``was executed using my vehicles which had been stolen by robbers.'' The paper said the militia leader had appointed a team of elders to negotiate the hostages' release.

In April 1998, 10 Red Cross staff were abducted in Mogadishu but released unharmed after nine days.

A UNICEF doctor was shot dead in an ambush in central Somalia last September. For security reasons, many aid agencies have scaled down their operations in the Horn of Africa nation or have pulled out completely.



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