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Frenchman Recalls Escape in Somalia


MOGADISHU, Somalia — In the end, it all came down to a single forgotten bolt.

Marc Aubrière, a French security adviser who was held hostage in Somalia for more than a month, said he simply slipped open a lock on the inside of his cell door — a lock his captors had somehow overlooked. He then tiptoed past the sleeping guards, who are part of an extremist Islamist group that has threatened to behead all infidels, and dashed out the door barefoot, “so as not to make noise,” he said.

He surfaced on the streets of Mogadishu, one of the most perilous cities in the world — a place where a lone bearded white man like him would immediately draw attention, and where there is no shortage of thugs, opportunists and religious extremists eager to capture a foreigner and try to sell him off for millions.

“It was like being in a prison inside a jail inside another jail,” Mr. Aubrière said. “Everybody will try to catch you. You have no friend.”

With fresh, puffy scratches up and down his arms from the cactus bushes he scurried through, Mr. Aubrière somehow made it to the presidential palace shortly before dawn on Wednesday and was free. He managed to regain his sense of direction, he said, by following the stars, and he was shot at several times.

“This is a fair game; they play, they lose,” he said of his captors. “They can’t complain about me. I didn’t hurt anybody. I didn’t kill anybody. You play, you lose.”

Mr. Aubrière, 40, recounted his daring midnight escape in an interview on Wednesday afternoon at a dilapidated African Union military base in Mogadishu, where he was awaiting a flight back to Paris, via Nairobi. He and a colleague — who is still in captivity, being held by a separate radical Islamist group — had come to Somalia on behalf of the French government to help train the security forces of Somalia’s fledgling government. But the two were snatched from a Mogadishu hotel on July 14 by rogue security forces who had defected to the insurgency.

Mr. Aubrière insisted emphatically, several times in an excited voice, that his half-dozen heavily armed captors treated him like a gentleman, never hitting him, always feeding him and making sure he had plenty of water.

“They were young guys, but good guys,” he said.

He talked about what he ate — “spaghetti, rice, meat from sheep, you know, the normal Somali stuff” — and how he trained for weeks in his cell, cranking out push-ups and walking for hours back and forth, always barefoot, “to toughen up my feet.” To kill time, he read the one book he could get his hands on, Dan Brown’s “Deception Point.”

“I read that book eight times,” he said. “I hate this book now.”

Mr. Aubrière batted down rumors circulating in the city that the French government had paid $2 million for his release, saying, “If they gave money, would I have escaped myself?” A French Foreign Ministry official also stressed that no ransom had been paid and that, contrary to some reports, there had been no violence or shooting connected to the escape.

Mr. Aubrière looked oddly fit for a man who had been confined to a cell for the past month and had just emerged from a death-defying experience. He has narrow, dark eyes, thick arms and a wooly black beard with a silver chin. He was wearing a striped shirt someone had given him, white pants and sandals.

He said that now that he was free, all he really wanted to do was “kiss my wife.”

Would he ever want to come back to this country?

“Maybe next life,” he said.

For many people here, his yarn was too much to believe, with doubters contending that Mr. Aubrière made up the story after being released for cash. The most unlikely part, they argued, was the five-hour odyssey through the bullet-riddled maze of central Mogadishu, where hundreds of thousands of people live in the ruins of a city that has been relentlessly strafed and bombed throughout 18 years of civil war.

But while such a journey would be dangerous, it does seem possible. At night, Mogadishu is deserted. The streets are blank. The houses are dark. Because there is routinely heavy fighting between the government and the insurgents, most people shutter themselves in at sundown and do not come out until dawn.

Mr. Aubrière said he had prepared his breakout plan for weeks and made his move early Wednesday, when it was windy and the noise would allow him to slip away undetected.

“You have a choice,” he said. “Either you wait and be killed. Or you try and be free.”

He called the neighborhood where he was being held “the stronghold,” and he chalked up his escape to sheer grit.

“Smart? You don’t have to be so smart,” he said. “I was just telling myself, ‘Never stop, never stop walking, never stop.’ It’s just simple. It’s strength, that’s all.”

Mr. Aubrière said he worked for the French Foreign Ministry, though French diplomats in Nairobi had said last month that he worked for the Defense Ministry. He denied that he had ever posed as a journalist, as several Somalis who saw him at his hotel had said the Frenchmen did. And he insisted that his escape would not further endanger his colleague still in captivity.

“If I had killed, maybe,” he said. “But it was technically impossible. If I had used a weapon, I would have been caught, immediately.”

Sharon Otterman contributed reporting from New York, and Dan Bilefsky from Paris.


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2 Jawaabood " Frenchman Recalls Escape in Somalia "

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