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Questions Raised on Whether French Agent Escaped or Was Freed by Somali Captors

A French security agent kidnapped by insurgents in Somalia last month said he escaped Wednesday while his captors slept, then walked five hours through one of the most dangerous cities in the world to safety at the country's presidential palace.

Marc Aubriere, who was seized along with another agent in July 14, denied reports that he killed any of his captors during his escape.

"The militants who were holding me treated me well, they were giving me nice food," he told The Associated Press before boarding a plane to leave Mogadishu. "I was not harmed. There is no one I have killed or injured while I was escaping."

He said he escaped at midnight when his guards "were tired and sleepy."

He told France's RFI radio that he was "using the starlight to guide me ... Mogadishu at night is deserted and all the men that you cross paths with are armed. I was fired upon, I ran and hid and luckily they missed me."

Aubriere and another agent were kidnapped from a hotel in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, then split up between the rebel groups al-Shabab and its ally Hizbul-Islam. The second hostage was still being held.

"I am very happy but I am worried about my friend who is still held by militants," Aubriere told AP, looking tired and being led by the shoulders by Somali security agents.

The French agents were in the country to train Somali government forces, which are fighting Islamist militiamen. Militants had said the two would be tried under Islamic law for alleged spying and conspiracy against Islam.

Foreigners rarely travel to Somalia, which is among the most dangerous countries in the world. The country has not had a functioning government for 18 years since clan warlords overthrew a brutal dictator then unleashed their militias on each other.

Kidnappings for ransom have been on the rise in recent years, with journalists and aid workers often targeted. Two foreign journalists — Canadian Amanda Lindhout and Australian Nigel Brennan — have been held for a year.

Farhan Asanyo, a Somali military officer, had told the AP earlier Wednesday that the man came up to government soldiers early Wednesday, identified himself and said he had escaped after killing three of his captors. But French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said the security agent was freed without violence and without any ransom paid.

"This was without any violence, contrary to some information that came from Somalia," Chevallier told reporters Wednesday afternoon. "This came without any ransom paid by France."

Chevallier said Aubriere was already on his way back to France.

Abdulkadir Hussein Wehliye, the assistant information secretary of Somalia's presidential palace, said the agent arrived at the palace safely and was "in a good mood."

Chevallier confirmed that the second hostage was still being detained, but declined to provide any details, citing security reasons.

Many experts fear the country's lawlessness could provide a haven for Al Qaeda, offering a place for terrorists to train and gather strength — much like Afghanistan in the 1990s. The United States accuses al-Shabab of having ties to the terror network, which al-Shabab denies.

Somalia's lawlessness also has allowed piracy to flourish off its coast, making the Gulf of Aden one of the most dangerous waterways in the world.

Various Islamist groups have been fighting the U.N.-backed government since being chased from power 2 1/2 years ago. Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, sees near-daily battles between government and insurgent forces. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed.

The U.S. government — haunted by a deadly 1993 U.S. military assault in Mogadishu chronicled in "Black Hawk Down" — is working to lower the growing terrorist threat without sending in American troops. The Obama administration recently increased aid to Somalia by pouring resources into the weak government.