Americans few and far between in Somalia

By Jill Dougherty

The American that U.S. special forces rescued from Somali kidnappers was one of an extremely small group of Americans inside Somalia.

The U.S. State Department and international aid organizations say it is difficult to pin down just how many Americans are in Somalia.

The department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs told CNN that it cannot provide figures because it does not require Americans to register with local embassies.

Several aid organizations say the number of aid workers is low because of major security concerns in the country. One organization with which CNN spoke would not provide any information out of concern for the security for its staff on the ground.

There are serious dangers, aid workers say, from armed fighting, the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, pirates, criminals and a long history of kidnappings.

In addition, according to U.S. government officials, about 20 young Somali-American men have traveled to Somalia to train with and fight for Al-Shabaab.

The American Refugee Committee (ARC), whose senior representative just returned from Mogadishu this week, tells CNN that most organizations use local staff, and there appear to be very few white Americans, Europeans, etc., on the ground. An official from ARC gave a speech in Mogadishu, they say, and the Somali Disaster Management Association told him he was the first white person to speak publicly in Mogadishu in years.

That representative’s guess is that in southern Somalia there could be 10 to 20 Americans confined primarily to the airport and that most who do come to Mogadishu come in and out and do not stay.

ARC has sponsored many Somali-American volunteers who serve in Somalia, and their estimate is that the number of Somali-Americans and Somali-Canadians in the country is much higher, about 200. ARC’s own staff on the ground are led by a Somali-Canadian country director and all of their other expats are African (mainly Kenyan).

In the areas of Somaliland and Puntland, including where American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul Thisted were captured, the number of Americans appears to be much higher, although Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, tells CNN that Puntland and Galkayo, the town where they were taken, are “on the border of what is considered safe.”

Local criminals, she says, often believe that kidnapping an American will fetch a large ransom, perhaps $1 million. Some of the people kidnapped are sold to formal networks, and others are held by a single group. One factor that makes the situation particularly dangerous, Bruton says, is the widespread use of qat, a narcotic stimulant that is chewed. It can be very dangerous when armed men are jumpy.

Buchanan and Thisted were engaged in demining, primarily teaching locals how to defuse mines. Other activities aid workers participate in are education, conflict resolution and women’s issues.

Piracy and kidnapping, she said, “are not a new problem, unfortunately, which is why we have to be vigilant and have to be prepared to do the kinds of operations like we saw last night.”

Source: CNN World News.

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