NIAMEY, Niger – Six aid group employees were abducted from the guesthouse in a central Niger town, officials and witnesses said Monday.
Men in two Toyota pickup trucks pulled up to a guesthouse in the town of Dakoro late Sunday and seized five Nigeriens and a worker from Chad, said Sidi Mohamed, the governor of the Maradi region.
Local authorities have mounted a search operation, and they say they have surrounded the abductors in an area more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Dakoro.
"Presently, they are in Tassara, in that zone over there. They are encircled. They wanted to drive toward Mali — it seems obvious that these were elements of AQIM," said the Prefect of Bermo, Idrissa Hassane, using the acronym for Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the local affiliate of al-Qaida. "I am hopeful that we will be able to catch them."
All six Africans work for the aid group "Bien-Etre de la Femme et de l'Enfant au Niger," or "Well-Being of the Mother and Child of Niger," known by its French acronym of BEFEN. The Niamey-based aid group has about 250 local employees, around 100 of which are based in Dakoro where they run a clinic for severely malnourished children, said the group's national coordinator Dr. Sayadi Sani.
Dakoro has become a hub for international aid workers, including organizations like CARE International and Oxfam, which use Dakoro as a base to carry out projects in the grasslands that extend to the north, home to the dwindling nomadic communities who still live off of their herds of camels and cows.
Mohamed, the governor of the Maradi region which includes Dakoro, said the abductors were likely looking for foreign nationals.
"They were taken by unidentified individuals who came in the night aboard two 4-by-4 pickup trucks," said the governor. "For the moment, we are trying to pursue them. They went north toward Tahoua. I have always said that there are criminal elements in this area, and I have asked aid workers to take a security detail. But when we preach prudence, people think we are overreacting," said Mohamed.
Sani, the national coordinator of BEFEN, said that the compound where his employees were staying is guarded. "They came and banged on the gate. When the guard went to see who it is, they shoved their guns at him. They then hit the guard, and then had access to the house."
Sani confirmed that the abductors had taken six of his employees, including a doctor, a nurse and several malnutrition specialists, as well as their driver. He said that traces of blood found on the floor of the compound indicates that some of their staff may have been injured in the abduction.
"We are a national NGO. Our employees are locals," he said, trying to underscore that they have no expats on their staff.
Much of northern Niger has become off-limits to foreigners due to the threat of kidnapping by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which is still holding four of the seven employees of French nuclear giant Areva, who were kidnapped two years ago in the northern Niger town of Arlit.
Dakoro, however, was considered safe. The town is about a 2-hour drive from the district capital of Maradi which has been a hub for international aid groups dealing with the massive hunger crisis that has hit the Sahel. Charities including MSF-Belgium and UNICEF run programs in the area to help malnourished children.
Until around June, MSF-Belgium managed the malnutrition clinic in Dakoro. This summer, they pulled out and handed over the running of the clinic to BEFEN.
Moussa Ali, a Dakoro resident living near the guesthouse, said he happened to be walking by when he saw the two Toyota pickup trucks pull in to the guesthouse. He said he realized they were rebels because they were well-armed.
"They came in two Toyotas and sped off toward the north, after having forced the hostages into the car," said Ali.
Hassane, the prefect of Bermo, a town located north of Dakoro, said that he was in Dakoro until sundown on Sunday night, and all seemed normal. He said he returned to Bermo and was getting ready to go to sleep when he got a call at around 11 p.m. alerting him of the abduction.
He said that he jumped into his 4x4 along with his guards and spent all night patrolling the area. The prefects of Dakoro and several other small towns that dot the grasslands also patrolled along the dirt tracks.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.