Islamist group Ansaru on Monday claimed the kidnapping of seven foreigners in a deadly weekend raid on a construction site in restive northern Nigeria.
The attack in Bauchi state late Saturday was the one of the worst incidents targeting foreigners in northern Nigeria, a region that has seen waves of violence by extremist Islamist groups, but relatively few kidnappings.
Ansaru is considered a new group with a rising profile after it claimed the abduction of a French national in December.
Some view it as being directly linked to Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgents blamed for killing hundreds of people in northern Nigeria since 2009.
In an email statement sent to journalists, Ansaru said it has “the custody of seven persons, which include Lebanese and their European counterparts working with Setraco,” the Lebanese-owned company targeted in the attack.
Police in Bauchi said four Lebanese, one Briton, a Greek citizen and an Italian were among those taken hostage by gunmen who stormed the site in the town of Jama’are in Bauchi state. The assailants shot dead a security guard.
Ansaru’s two-paragraph statement cites “the transgressions and atrocities done to the religion of Allah… by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali”.
The group previously listed French support for the military offensive against Islamist rebels in Mali as a justification for the December kidnapping.
The document was written in English, like some past statements. However, others have been written in Hausa, a language used widely across west Africa.
Residents in Jama’are, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the state capital, said Setraco evacuated all of its staff from the company compound on Sunday and a company spokesman told AFP its road project had been stopped.
“There is no way will continue to work there because the lives of our colleagues are in danger,” John Ogbamgba said Monday. “We are all in tears.”
There were separate attacks on a police station and a prison in Jama’are before the abductions, but no deaths were reported.
The kidnapping of expatriates has typically occurred in Nigeria’s oil-rich south, with the hostages released following a ransom payment.
But such incidents in the north have been isolated and some analysts fear that Ansaru’s emergence may be a sign of changing tactics among the Islamist group’s operating in northern Nigeria.
The Setraco spokesman said the firm was particularly worried by the location of the abductions, noting that if the attack had occurred in the south, “maybe there would be a ransom demand.”
In the north however, “you don’t get information,” Ogbamgba said.
Aside from the French national kidnapped in December whose whereabouts remain unknown, the three others Westerners kidnapped in the north since 2011 have all been killed.
They include a German engineer abducted last year as well as a Briton and an Italian seized in 2011, in an attack the British government linked to Ansaru.
In November, Britain declared the group a terrorist organisation.
Some experts say that Ansaru’s leader may be Khalid al-Barnawi, one of three Nigerian extremists labeled a “global terrorist” by the United States last year.
The State Department described Barnawi as tied to Boko Haram, “with close links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” Al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch. The governments of Greece and Italy have confirmed that their citizens were among those taken hostage. Beirut has acknowledged that two Lebanese nationals were seized, but has not matched the police figure of four.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday that London was in touch with Nigerian authorities but did not confirm reports that a Briton was among the hostages.