MOGADISHU (AFP) — Gunmen have kidnapped two foreign aid workers from an eastern Ethiopia region and taken them to central Somalia, officials and the Paris-based Medecins du Monde said Tuesday.

The pair, both employees of the French aid agency, were seized from Fadhigaradle village where they were visiting drought-hit areas Monday, said Hareri Hassan Barre, the commissioner for the Balanbale district in central Somalia.

“The two foreign aid workers — a male and a female — were kidnapped (Monday) … in Ethiopia and were taken to central Somalia,” Barre told AFP.

Local Somali authorities sent security officials to seek the hostages’ freedom from the unidentified abductors.

“We have sent security forces to search for the aid workers, who were brought to the region late yesterday,” said Ali Sheikh Hashi, another local official.

Medecins du Monde confirmed the abductions, but did not give the nationality of its employees.

“The organisation is in permanent contact with the authorities, its team on the ground as well as other actors in the field,” it said in a statement.

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

On Monday, Somali gunmen freed a German national and his Somali wife who had been abducted over the weekend in the northern Somali breakaway state of Puntland, where kidnapping is endemic.

Kidnappers have also been holding three journalists — a Canadian, an Australian and a Somali — since August 23 and are reportedly demanding 2.5 million dollars (1.7 million euros) for their release.

Somalia has been torn by 17 years of almost uninterrupted civil conflict since the 1991 ouster of former president Mohamed Siad Barre. Numerous UN-backed initiatives have failed to restore stability in the country.

Since last year, thousands of civilians have died and hundreds of thousands displaced in the guerilla war pitting invading Ethiopian troops against Islamist insurgents, accused of ties to Al-Qaeda.

The kidnappings and violence have disrupted aid operations in Somalia, where at least 3.2 million people are facing food shortages and several thousand need medical treatment for battle wounds and other ailments.

Hundreds of Somalis aboard trucks and others on foot filed out of the capital Mogadishu, a day after fighting between Islamists and Somali forces, backed by Ethiopian and African Union troops, killed at least 29 civilians.

“I believe staying in Mogadishu is… taking a risk because many civilians died yesterday and warring sides are still sharpening their swords for fresh attacks,” said Shamso Mohamed Ali, a mother of two.

Several residents expressed similar fears that have dogged Somalis for nearly two decades.

Islamist militants, known as the Shebab, also vowed to intensify attacks against African peacekeepers, whom they blame for the latest civilian deaths.

“We are going to double our attacks against the African Union forces. The only option they have is to leave our country,” Shebab spokesman Sheikh Muktar Robow told AFP.

The Shebab last week warned that all flights should cease as of September 16, arguing the airport was an instrument of Ethiopia’s military occupation of Somalia.

“It should remain closed, if not, we will take tough steps against any plane that violates the ban we have imposed,” Robow said.

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