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Somalia questions foreign 'hostages' found near Al-Shabaab territory

Somalia has also been plagued by piracy for years. ©AFP

Mogadishu (AFP) - Somali police launched an investigation Sunday after 20 foreigners were discovered near territory controlled by the Al-Shabaab militant group claiming to be fishermen who had been held hostage for years.

Police spokesman Sadik Dudishe said the men -- 14 Iranians and six Pakistanis -- were apprehended for questioning after they wandered unexpectedly from a part of Galmudug state under militant control.

"Some of these people were kidnapped by Al-Shabaab in 2014, while others were abducted on the Harardhere coast, near Qosol-tire, in southern Somalia in mid-2019," Dudishe said in a statement.

"Four of them have physical injuries," he said.

It is not clear how the men came to be released, and police provided no further detail, citing an ongoing inquiry. 

Local authorities in Hobyo, the coastal town where the men appeared, said the foreigners were being held for questioning.

"We are still investigating these 20 men who were detained today after coming from an Al-Shabaab controlled area," Hobyo's commissioner Abdullahi Ahmed Ali told reporters.

"They have claimed to be fishermen," he added.

Al-Shabaab, which controls swathes of rural Somalia, has been trying to overthrow the central government for 15 years, funding its insurgency through criminal activities including kidnapping and ransom.

Somalia has also been plagued by piracy for years, though attacks on maritime vessels off the coast have fallen off sharply in recent years since peaking at 176 in 2011.

Unconfirmed reports suggest the men could have been abducted by pirates and passed on to Al-Shabaab, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, which includes foreign fighters among its ranks.

In 2020, three Iranian fishermen believed to be the last hostages held by Somali pirates were freed after five years of captivity.

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