Gunmen abducted a 32-year-old female American aid worker in northern Somalia on Tuesday along with a Danish and a Somali colleague as their convoy headed to the airport. The kidnappings come only weeks after four Europeans were seized by suspected Somali gunmen in neighboring Kenya.
A self-proclaimed Somali pirate said that pirates had captured the three. The captors would not harm the three but will want a ransom for their release, he said. The claim could not be independently verified.
The three employees work for the Danish Demining Group, whose experts have been clearing mines and unexploded ordnance in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.
"As a first priority, we have been concentrating on the ongoing investigations. We are keeping close contact with the family members, who are deeply concerned, just as we are," said Ann Mary Olsen, head of the Danish Refugee Council's international department.
Activities of the Danish Refugee Council, which runs the Danish Demining Group, have been suspended in the area. The group provided no other details and asked media outlets "to respect the need for confidentiality as investigations are ongoing."
A Nairobi-based security official said the demining group was traveling in a three-car convoy, including one vehicle of armed guards, but that the guards did not resist the kidnapping.
The three are believed to be on their way to a former pirate stronghold on the Somali coast, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Ahmed Mohamed, a police officer in the Somali town of Galkayo, said the aid workers had been heading to the airport when they crossed into a southern section of the city that is under clan control. The northern section of Galkayo is under the control of the semiautonomous region of Puntland.
Two Nairobi-based officials said the American woman is 32 and the Danish man is 60. The woman is a former school teacher, one official said.
Bile Hussein, the self-proclaimed pirate, said the three were abducted with the help of "insiders." Hussein has provided reliable information about pirate activities in Somalia to The Associated Press in the past. He said that capturing ships off East Africa is becoming harder _ ships are using stronger self-defense measures _ so pirates are looking for other ways to earn ransoms.
"They are now on the way to Gan town, and we shall treat them humanely and kindly. Our aim is all about a ransom, not harming them," Hussein said.
Christian Friis Bach, Denmark's minister for development cooperation, told Danish broadcaster DR that the demining group was working to help Somalis.
"That's why it's both sad and tragic that they have been struck by this kidnapping, and I hope their strong network and a collected effort also by the Foreign Ministry can resolve the situation quickly.," he said.
The kidnapping comes only weeks after the seizure of two women working for Doctors Without Borders from a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya, as well as the kidnappings of two European tourists from Kenya's coast _ one of whom later died. Somali gunmen were suspected in those attacks.
Kenya has sent at least 1,600 forces into southern Somalia to attack al-Qaida-linked militants in response to those kidnappings, though it's not clear whether the al-Shabab fighters were responsible for the abductions.
The northern semiautonomous province of Puntland is generally considered more stable than most of the rest of Somalia, which is riven between pirate gangs, Islamist insurgents and militias and the weak U.N.-backed government in the capital. It has not had a functioning central government for the last 20 years.
Associated Press writer Katharine Houreld contributed from Nairobi, Kenya. Karl Ritter contributed from Stockholm, Sweden.