MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — Asked how he escaped from his Somali kidnappers Wednesday, a haggard, slightly gaunt French security consultant shrugged his shoulders, cracked a sly smile and pointed down.
"With my feet," he deadpanned, hours after fleeing his abductors' hide-out in Mogadishu and walking barefoot to the Somali capital's heavily guarded presidential palace.
Surprised government soldiers at first mistook the bearded, shaggy-haired stranger for a foreign fighter and held him at the edge of the compound for nearly an hour before realizing he was an escaped hostage, said Mohamed Sheik, head of Somalia's intelligence agency.
Marc Aubriere, 40, and another French security consultant were kidnapped last month from their hotel in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. The whereabouts of the second hostage was unclear Wednesday.
The two men, employed by the French Foreign Ministry, were providing security and intelligence training to Somali soldiers. Their kidnappers bribed a government official to secure a military truck and impersonated security officers.
The captors "knocked on the door and said they were the police," he said. "They had Kalashnikovs, so that was that."
Aubriere said he was treated well by the kidnappers and did not harm any of them during his escape. He denied a report by a police official that he had killed three of his captors.
"I didn't hurt anyone," he said Wednesday afternoon during an interview at the African Union peacekeeping base here. "I didn't kill anyone."
Aubriere said he spent his days of captivity exercising and rereading the only book he had, "Deception Point" by Dan Brown. "I hate that book now," he said.
He began plotting his escape a few weeks ago after noticing that his captors failed to lock both sides of the double doors to his room. "The other side was only locked from the inside," he said. "They made a mistake."
He said he crept over seven sleeping guards around midnight, wandered onto the vacant, windy streets and used stars for navigation to head toward government offices. He walked, rather than ran, to avoid arousing suspicion. Occasionally the quiet was pierced by nearby gunshots, but he said he never stopped to find out whether they were directed at him.
"You just never stop walking," he said.
He said he knew that he remained at risk, even after escaping. "Mogadishu is a kind of jail," he said.
"Even the youngest people will try to sell you."
Shortly before dawn he turned himself over, hands raised, to the surprised government soldiers.
The Islamist insurgent groups Shabab and Hizbul Islam are believed to be behind the kidnappings. According to government officials, the rival insurgent groups at one point fought each other over which one would hold the hostages. They eventually split custody, each taking one man, officials said.
Abduction of foreigners in Somalia, like piracy at sea, has become a major source of income for criminal gangs in the Horn of Africa country.
Four foreign aid workers and two Kenyan pilots kidnapped last year were released this month. Two journalists, a Canadian and an Australian, have been missing for a year.
French officials have denied paying ransom for Aubriere and his countryman, though Somali government officials confirmed that negotiations were underway. The kidnappers wanted $4 million for each man, and French representatives were trying to lower the price to $1 million, said a government official familiar with the negotiations.
"After two days, I had no contact with him," Aubriere said of his fellow hostage, adding that he hoped kidnappers would not take out their anger on the remaining captive.
The escape, he said, "was fair game."
"They play. They lose."