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Nigerian extremists claim abduction of 7 foreigners

- Associated Press - Monday, February 18, 2013

BAUCHI, Nigeria (AP) — A little-known Islamic extremist group claimed responsibility Monday for the kidnapping of seven foreign workers from northern Nigeria, threatening their safety if anyone tried to intervene and free them.

The group that calls itself Ansaru issued a short statement to journalists, later obtained by The Associated Press, in which it said its fighters had kidnapped the foreigners Saturday night from a construction company's camp at Jama'are, a town about 125 miles north of Bauchi, the capital of Bauchi state.

Authorities have said those kidnapped include one Briton, one Greek, one Italian, three Lebanese and one Filipino, all employees of the Lebanese construction company Setraco.

The statement said Ansaru committed the abduction "based on the transgression and atrocities shown to the religion of Allah by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali."

"It is stressed that any attempt or act contrary to our conditions by the European nations or by the Nigerian government will" endanger the hostages, the statement read. The statement offered no conditions, suggesting the group would later contact authorities to make a ransom demand.

Police and security officials in Nigeria did not immediately respond the statement. Greek and Italian diplomats have confirmed their citizens were abducted, while British officials have said only that they continue to investigate the claims. The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, issued a statement earlier Monday saying none of those taken was a U.S. citizen.

In January 2012, Ansaru declared itself a breakaway group from Boko Haram, the north's main terrorist group. Boko Haram, the name of which means "Western education is sacrilege," has launched a guerrilla campaign of bombings and shootings across Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north. Boko Haram is blamed for at least 792 killings last year alone, according to an AP count.

Ansaru's aims are unknown, but they have a different message from Boko Haram, according to Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

"They seem to disagree with some of Boko Haram's strategies — in particular, they disagreed 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, and they seem very eager to cultivate that side of their image. It makes them more dangerous."

The attack Saturday in Jama'are saw gunmen first assault a local prison and burn police trucks, authorities said. Then the attackers blew up a back fence at the construction company's compound and took over, killing a guard in the process, witnesses and police said.

The gunmen appeared to be organized and knew who they wanted to target, a local construction worker who witnessed the attack told the AP. He said the Nigerian household staff members at the residence were left unharmed, while the foreigners were quickly abducted. The worker spoke on condition of anonymity as he's not authorized to speak to journalists.

The Ansaru statement hinted that it would kill the hostages and vaguely referenced a previous kidnap. The group earlier claimed the kidnapping in December of a French national working on a renewal energy project in Nigeria's northern Katsina state.

Britain also linked Ansaru to the May 2011 kidnapping of Christopher McManus, who was abducted with Italian Franco Lamolinara from a home in Kebbi state. The men were held for months before their captors killed them in March 2012 during a failed Nigerian military raid backed up by British special forces in Sokoto, the main city in Nigeria's northwest.

Authorities initially blamed Boko Haram for the kidnapping, something that it denied. That apparently represented the birth of the group, whose motivations remain murky, but whose threat is increasingly real for foreigners in northern Nigeria.

In November, Britain's Interior Ministry announced that a parliamentary order that makes membership in or support of Ansaru a criminal offense.

• Jon Gambrell reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press writers Cassandra Vinograd in London and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this article.

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