Somali women's minister abducted by Islamists

Islamist rebels seized Somalia’s newly-appointed women’s minister as she took office, heightening security fears for aid groups planning deliveries to a famine-stricken nation.

Armed men abducted 32-year-old Asha Osman Aqiil in Balad, a town north of the capital Mogadishu, a day after she was named the country’s minister for women and family affairs.

She was on her way to take up her position on Thursday when she was snatched by a gang, clan elder Ahmed Sheikh Mohamud said.

“It is unfortunate that she is in the hands of the wrong people and we are praying that she is freed,” said a lawmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The only woman in a new 18-member government unveiled by Prime Minister Abdiwali Mohamed Ali on Wednesday, Ms Aqiil was travelling into Mogadishu for her first cabinet meeting by car when she was abducted.

Before her sudden elevation to ministerial office, Ms Aqiil was previously a vocal women’s rights campaigner. A widow, her husband was abducted and killed by suspected Islamist gunmen three years ago.

Her abduction will heighten security concerns among aid agencies planning to resume emergency food deliveries to regions under control of the Islamist rebel group Shebab, after the rebels lifted a ban on their work and appealed for aid in the face of a severe drought.

The United Nations, which this week declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia under rebel control, said on Thursday it would resume flying aid deliveries into Mogadishu “within days“.

The head of the World Food Program (WFP), Josette Sheeran, said during a visit to Mogadishu on Thursday that the WFP was anxious to get food supplies into the worst affected areas “as quickly as possible”.

WFP was forced to pull out of southern Somalia last year following a series of threats and curbs imposed by the Shebab, but has continued to operate in other parts of the country.

The hardline rebels rule much of southern and central Somalia where they have imposed strict Islamic laws, including prohibiting women from holding public office.

“We condemn the kidnapping of the women’s affairs minister by the Shebab. Somali women will do what it takes to secure her freedom,” women rights activist Sahra Maalin told reporters.

“Aqiil is a prisoner of conscience and her unlawful arrest must be rejected,” she added.

Ms Maalin described the minister’s abduction as a “collective punishment against Somali women and all those who believe in equality“.

The Shebab, designated a terrorist group by the United States, have waged a bloody campaign to overthrow the country’s Western-backed government they accuse of being an apostate administration.

The government’s authority in the war-ravaged capital is limited to just a few areas where it survives under the protection of a 9,000-strong African Union force.

Somalia is the worst affected country in the drought-hit Horn of Africa region.

Nearly half of Somalia’s estimated 10 million people are facing a food crisis, with malnutrition rates currently the highest in the world.

Relief groups and donors on Thursday said they were ready to test Shebab’s pledge to allow aid through to the regions they control, provided their aid would reach those most in need.

“We are determined to test that pledge,” USAID administrator Raj Shah said in Nairobi. “We would like to see that access expand dramatically and rapidly.”

The kidnapping of foreigners is rampant in Somalia, a Horn of Africa country ravaged by cycles of devastating violence since the ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.


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