THE Foreign Office is investigating reports that a British national may have been among a group of construction workers kidnapped by gunmen in northern Nigeria.
• Reports suggest the kidnapped workers are attached to the Setraco construction firm and are from Britain, Italy, Greece and Lebanon
• Last month, 40 hostages were killed in an attack on a gas field in Algeria
• Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group, has been involved in a guerilla campaign in the north of Nigeria over the past 18 months
A BRITISH worker is among seven foreigners taken hostage in Nigeria after gunmen thought to be linked to al-Qaeda stormed a construction compound in the remote north of the country.
The workers, who also include an Italian, a Greek and four Lebanese, were snatched after their kidnappers killed a security guard at the compound in Bauchi state.
The incident is the latest in a series of kidnappings in Africa’s most populous country. It comes just weeks after more than 40 foreign hostages – including two Scots – were killed when terrorists attacked an Algerian gas plant, and will heighten fears for thousands of western workers in the region.
While no-one has claimed responsibility for this latest incident, it is thought the al-Qaeda-aligned Ansaru, which has become increasingly active in recent months, may be to blame.
The kidnapping, which took place on Saturday night, is the worst case of foreigners being taken captive in Nigeria’s Muslim north since an insurgency by Islamist militants intensified nearly two years ago.
Bauchi police chief Mohammed Ladan said the gunmen attacked a police station and a prison before storming the compound belonging to construction firm Setraco in the town of Jama’are.
“We repelled the attack on the police station and the security men at the prison yard also repelled the attack, but they burnt two vehicles in Jama’are police station,” Mr Ladan said.
“They then attacked Setraco construction, killed a local security guard and they succeeded in kidnapping people.”
Local government chairman Adamu Aliyu and security sources confirmed a Briton was among those taken. However, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was unable to give further details.
The Italian news agency Ansa later said authorities confirmed an Italian had been kidnapped in the attack. It quoted foreign minister Giulio Terzi saying the safety of the hostage must be given “absolute priority”.
Western governments are increasingly concerned about Islamists in Nigeria linking up with groups outside the region, including al-Qaeda’s North African wing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Last year, Ansaru claimed responsibility for a dawn raid on a major police station in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, during which it said hundreds of prisoners were released.
Last month, it attacked a convoy of Nigerian troops en route to deployment in Mali.
It is also believed to be responsible for the kidnap of 28-year-old British engineer Chris McManus, who was snatched in February 2011 along with Italian Franco Lamolinara.
The two men were held for ten months before being shot dead by their captors as British and Nigerian troops prepared to launch a rescue attempt.
Ansaru is understood to have some links with another Islamist group, Boko Harm, which has sought to exploit Nigeria’s weak central government through a bloody guerrilla campaign of shootings and bombings.
Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is sacrilege” in the Hausa language of Nigeria’s north, is blamed for killing at least 792 people in 2012 alone.
Foreigners, long abducted by militant groups and criminal gangs for ransom in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern delta, have become targeted in Nigeria’s north as the violence has grown. However, abductions of foreigners in the north have seen hostages regularly killed.
In May last year, gunmen in Kaduna state shot and killed a Lebanese and a Nigerian construction worker, while kidnapping another Lebanese employee. Later that month, kidnappers shot a German hostage dead during a rescue operation.
In December, more than 30 attackers stormed a house in the northern Nigeria state of Kaduna, killing two people and kidnapping a French engineer working on a renewable energy project there.
Chinese construction workers also have been killed by gunmen around Maiduguri, the northeastern city in Nigeria where Boko Haram first began.
In the most recent attack, two North Korean doctors working for a hospital in Yobe state were stabbed to death and a third beheaded. No group claimed responsibility for that attack.
Foreign embassies in Nigeria have issued travel warnings for northern Nigeria for months.
The most recent advice from the FCO is to avoid all travel to some parts of the country and to avoid all but essential travel to Bauchi, where Saturday’s kidnapping took place.
Worries about abductions have increased in recent weeks with the French military intervention in Mali, as its troops and Malian soldiers try to root out Islamic fighters who took over the north in the months following a military coup.
Last week, the US embassy in Abuja put out a warning following the killing of polio workers in Kano and the killing of the North Korean doctors.
A spokesman for the FCO said it was working with the Nigerian authorities following Saturday’s incident.
Boko Haram: African Islamists who will not shrink from the most extreme violence
WHILE kidnappings have long been common in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger delta, foreigners working in the rural north of the country are now at risk from Islamist groups unafraid to use the most violent tactics.
The largest of these groups, Boko Haram, wants strict Shariah law implemented across the whole of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, which is roughly split between its Christian south and Muslim north.
The sect, whose name means “western education is sacrilege” has killed both Christians and Muslims in its attacks, as well as soldiers and security forces.
Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, features in video clips that are released by Boko Haram’s faceless “public enlightenment department” from time to time.
The group, which speaks to journalists in phone conference calls at times of its choosing, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
However, attention has turned to another group, Ansaru, which is believed to be responsible for a series of attack on westerners in Nigeria.
Worryingly, the organisation is thought to have links with an al-Qaeda splinter group in North Africa, leading to fears that Islamic militants are establishing a presence across much of the continent.
While Ansaru released a video to announce its existence in June 2012, it is believed to be responsible for the murder of Briton Chris McManus and an Italian co-worker last year.
The first attack for which it claimed responsibility was an attack on a police station in Abuja, in November 2012. It claims it will target non-Muslims in “self defence”.
Ansaru says its leader is Abu Usmatul al-Ansari, of whom little is known.