MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somalia's al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab movement has taken possession of both French hostages seized in Mogadishu after winning a tussle with another rebel group holding one of them, insurgent sources said on Friday.
Gunmen stormed a Mogadishu hotel on Tuesday to grab the Frenchmen, who were working as security advisers for President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's government.
Kidnappings in the Horn of Africa nation are fairly common -- usually of Somalis, sometimes of foreigners and increasingly of ship crews off the coast. They are just one symptom of an 18-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands.
Rebels and an official said the two French agents were seized by a faction in the security forces linked to insurgents. It handed them to Hizbul Islam, who initially passed one to al Shabaab then handed the other over on Thursday night, the rebel sources said.
"We have handed over to al Shabaab the second Frenchman," a militia leader of the Hizbul Islam, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. "We had been arguing a lot, and we were on the verge of killing among ourselves."
A senior al Shabaab member, reached by Reuters, confirmed the group was holding the Frenchmen but would not comment on their fate. "We have both the French security consultants in our stronghold area," he told Reuters, declining to be named.
"Our leaders will decide what happens next."
The men are being held in Mogadishu.
Hizbul Islam and al Shabaab have close linkes -- frequently fighting alongside one another and sharing the same flag, weapons and cars. Analysts say, however, that al Shabaab takes a harder line than Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys' Hizbul Islam.
Aweys also led al Shabaab when it was the armed wing of the Islamic Courts movement that controlled Mogadishu and much of the south in 2006 before being ousted by an Ethiopian offensive.
Though there are fears al Shabaab may seek to punish the Frenchmen, the government and many ordinary Somalis believe their motivation is financial.
In the past, most kidnappings of foreigners in Somalia have ended with releases after ransom payments, but al Shabaab is known for killing Somali hostages rather than demanding money.
"This incident is purely for monetary purposes," Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar told Reuters on Thursday.
Western security services view al Shabaab as a proxy for Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network in the failed Horn of Africa state, which has been mired in conflict since 1991.
The United Nations said that more than 200,000 people had fled their homes in Mogadishu since early May -- the largest displacement since Ethiopia's invasion in late 2006.
"For the first time since 1991 several of the districts in the city, which had so far remained untouched by the conflict, are experiencing fighting and violence with many residents fleeing their homes for the first time," it said in a report.
The world body, quoting the Mogadishu-based Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation, said more than 350 civilians had been killed and 1,500 wounded since early May.
A two-year insurgency -- pitting Islamist groups, local militias, government's deeply-divided security forces, African Union peacekeepers and previously Ethiopian troops -- has killed at least 18,000 people, according to a local rights group.