AN ISLAMIC terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven foreigners – including one Briton – in Nigeria.
The group, which calls itself Ansaru, issued a brief statement saying it had acted in response to western involvement in Afghanistan and Mali.
Gunmen seized the construction workers during a raid in the remote town of Jama’are in Bauchi state on Saturday night.
Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has ordered the nation’s security agencies to take all action necessary to locate and rescue the foreign construction workers. But Ansaru said any attempt to rescue the hostages would put their safety at risk.
Nigerian authorities have confirmed that one Briton, one Greek, one Italian, three Lebanese and one Filipino were seized, but no further details have been released.
Ansaru’s statement said it had kidnapped the workers because of “the transgression and atrocities shown to the religion of Allah by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali”.
It stressed that any attempt or act contrary to the group’s conditions by the European nations or by the Nigerian government would endanger the hostages. However, the group offered no conditions, suggesting it would later make a ransom demand.
Earlier, Nigerian broadcasters aired an image apparently showing the hostages, who had been working for construction firm Setraco, kneeling at the feet of masked gunmen.
The attack in Jama’are saw gunmen first assault a local prison and burn police vehicles, authorities said. The attackers then blew up a back fence at the construction company’s compound and took over, killing a guard in the process, police said.
The gunmen appeared to be organised and knew who they wanted to target, a local construction worker who witnessed the attack said. He said Nigerian staff members at the residence were left unharmed, while the foreigners were quickly taken.
While hostage-taking has long been common in the country’s oil-rich Niger Delta, extremist groups in the Muslim north of the country are beginning to use the tactic as part of a campaign to have strict Sharia law extended across Nigeria.
In January last year, Ansaru broke away from Boko Haram, the north’s main terrorist group. Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is sacrilege”, is blamed for at least 792 killings last year alone.
The UK government has linked Ansaru to the death of British engineer Chris McManus, who was abducted along with Italian Franco Lamolinara in May 2011. Both men were murdered in March 2012 as British and Nigerian troops prepared to launch a rescue operation.
Worryingly, Ansaru is thought to have links with an al-Qaeda splinter group in North Africa. The latest incident comes after more than 40 foreign hostages – including two Scots – died when terrorists attacked an Algerian gas plant last month.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said Ansaru’s aims differed from those of Boko Haram.
“In particular, they disagree with Boko Haram’s tendency to kill Muslims,” Mr Pantucci said. “They seem to be more internationally focused, they talk a lot more in global jihad terms.”