Security forces kept Somali kidnappers surrounded on Wednesday hours after they abducted a Spanish and an Argentine aid worker from the medical charity Doctors Without Borders.
The two women were seized when their car was ambushed by a gang with machine guns in Bosasso port as they drove to a hospital. It was the latest in a string of such abductions in the semi-autonomous northern Puntland region.
Local troops pursued the kidnap gang and engaged in a gunfight shortly after, locals said.
"The kidnappers are still surrounded. We're still hopeful that we will free the hostages and capture the abductors," said Yusuf Bidde, a local government official.
Bidde did not know whether the abductees were safe or whether negotiations of any kind were going on.
Puntland's vice president Hassan Dahir Afqura said the kidnappers would not be allowed to negotiate.
"Kidnapping has become a business in Puntland," he said. "We will not engage in dialogue with abductors. We will use force to free the hostages."
The abduction came two days after gunmen in Puntland released French journalist Gwen Le Gouil, whom they kidnapped and held for eight days demanding $80,000 in ransom.
Spain's ambassador in Nairobi, Nicolas Martin Cinto, was quoted by Spanish news agency Efe as saying the kidnappers of Spanish doctor Mercedes Garcia and Argentine nurse Pilar Bouza had surrendered and asked not to be killed.
A Spanish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said it seemed the drama "will be resolved."
U.N. envoy to Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said he was "shocked" by the kidnapping and urged the pair's release.
Violence on the rise
Known for its relative stability compared with chaotic south Somalia, Puntland has, however, become increasingly associated with kidnappings, hijackings and piracy.
"Six men armed with guns approached me, blocking the road," the MSF pair's driver, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. "They hit me very badly and kidnapped the women in their car."
Foreigners in Somalia often run foul of local clans by failing to seek permission to travel through their territories.
Somali kidnappers are known to treat their captives well and almost never kill them, viewing them as an investment on which they expect a return in the form of ransom.
The women's translator said the assailants beat up their chauffeur before ordering them into another car and driving them off. "The abductors had a Toyota Surf and they blocked the way we were going," added the translator, who asked not to be named.
An MSF spokesman, Javier Sancho, said the two kidnapped employees were working on a nutritional project for the Spanish branch of the international charity.
"We don't know in what circumstances or what exactly has happened," he told Spanish radio.
The region is about 930 miles north of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, which is at the center of an Islamic insurgency that has killed thousands of people this year.
The United Nations says Somalia is facing Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis.