MOST foreigners working for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) will be pulled out of the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya from where two of their colleagues were kidnapped, the medical charity said last night.
The announcement came as the search continued for the two Spanish women, who worked at the Dadaab centre as logisticians.
Yesterday, the United Nations temporarily suspended all non-lifesaving aid operations in the camp following after the women were abducted on Thursday by an armed gang of three men, believed to be from Somalia.
Montserrat Serra and Blanca Thiebaut’s four-wheel-drive vehicle was yesterday found abandoned 25 miles from the refugee camp, stuck in mud halfway to the Somali border.
Kenyan police fear that the women have been taken into Somalia, in the third such kidnapping of Europeans in Kenya in a month.
Jose Antonio Bastos, president of MSF’s Spanish branch, said last night that all 49 expatriate staff working for the charity would be evacuated to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
Their work would be continued by the charity’s 343 local staff in Dadaab, a sprawling complex of three camps that are home to more than 480,000 Somalis who have fled war and now famine in their country.
MSF becomes the first aid agency to evacuate staff following the kidnapping, but there are fears that more will follow if there are further attacks.
A spokesman for the Kenyan government said that security forces were “tracking” the Spanish women’s kidnappers.
“Police have recovered the vehicle the bandits had taken about 25 miles from where the incident occurred,” said the spokesman. “The vehicle had got stuck in the mud due to heavy rains. Police believe the bandits have not gotten very far.”
The men were believed to be from Somalia, either kidnappers purely after cash or agents of al-Shabaab, the country’s al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist insurgents who now control most of the war-torn country’s south.
They are seen as at least partly responsible for the famine which has spread to six of southern Somalia’s eight regions because they have refused to allow Western aid into their territory. However, al-Shabaab sources have reportedly said that they were not responsible for the abduction of the Spanish logisticians.
Roger Middleton, senior Horn of Africa analyst for Chatham House, a London-based thinktank, said he felt the attack “was almost certainly bandits”.
It would be a “significant” change of tactics for the Islamists to begin kidnapping Westerners, he said.
Judith Tebbutt, a British holidaymaker, was kidnapped from her luxury lodge at a Kenyan beach resort in September, and Marie Dedieu, 66, from France, was seized from her holiday home nearby a fortnight ago.
There has been no word from the captors of in any of the incidents.
Yesterday, Dadaab’s international staff were mostly confined to compounds and security experts warned them not to conduct field work.
Life-saving activities in hospitals, malnutrition wards, and food and water distribution centres had not been interrupted, according to Emmanuel Nyabera, spokesman for the UN refugee organisation, UNHCR.
But it is understood that all non-essential work has been suspended.
This includes registration of new arrivals and journeys outside the camp to meet others still walking the final miles from the border with Somalia.
“We need things to normalise as quickly as possible,” said a senior worker with a UN agency based in Dadaab.
“The need here is so great, the people are so vulnerable, and the threat of water-borne diseases is rising now we see that the rains have started. Every day we’re shut down preparing for that creates great challenges for the future.”
There were warnings stretching back more than a year that Dadaab was becoming increasingly violent and militarised, with reports of weapons being smuggled into the camps and young men being recruited to anti-Western militia.
“It was not a surprise that this happened,” said a second aid worker. Few would talk on the record for fear of contradicting managers in Nairobi.
“We have known for ages that people were threatening kidnaps – anyone who has a grievance against foreign aid workers would find rich pickings in Dadaab.”