JOHANNESBURG – A breakaway Islamic extremist group said Saturday it had killed seven foreigners who its members kidnapped from northern Nigeria, according to an online message purportedly from the group.
The message, identified as coming from Ansaru, could not be immediately verified by The Associated Press, though it included photographs the group claimed showed the dead, who were kidnapped from a construction company compound in February. Those kidnapped included four Lebanese citizens and one each from Britain, Greece and Italy -- all employees of Setraco, a Lebanese construction company with an operation in Bauchi state, officials said.
Two Nigerian military spokesmen declined to immediately comment when reached by the AP, while a presidential spokesman and a spokeswoman for the country's domestic spy service could not be immediately reached. In a statement later Saturday, the British Foreign Office said it was "urgently investigating" the killings claimed by the group.
The message, posted to an Islamic extremist website Saturday, said Ansaru members killed the hostages after British warplanes were reported to have been seen in the northern Nigerian city of Bauchi by local journalists. However, the reports referenced in the online statement actually referred to the airplanes being seen at the international airport in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.
"As a result of this operation, the seven hostages were killed," the group said in the statement. It said a video of the killings would be posted online. An online image accompanying the posting appeared to show a gunman standing over dead bodies.
Ansaru said its decision to kill the hostages was also sparked by a statement immediately after the abduction from Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan who said the government would do anything in its power to free the hostages. The group said security forces had recently arrested an unspecified number of its members.
Ansaru previously issued a short statement in which it said its fighters kidnapped the foreigners Feb. 16 from a construction company's camp at Jama'are, a town about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Bauchi, the capital of Bauchi state. The attack 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, leaving the Nigerian household staff at the residence unharmed, while quickly abducting the foreigners, a witness said. Local officials in Nigeria initially identified one of the hostages as a Filipino, something the Philippines government later denied.
In January 2013, Ansaru declared itself a splinter group independent from Boko Haram, the north's main Islamic terrorist group, analysts say. Boko Haram, whose name 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.
On Saturday, a military spokesman said at least two soldiers and 52 Boko Haram fighters were killed in Maiduguri in fighting after a visit by the president. Those tallies could not be independently confirmed by the AP. Security forces often downplay their casualties, as well as those of civilians in the ongoing fight with guerrillas.
Britain has previously 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. That rescue mission strained Italian-British relations, and out of it came pledges from Italy and Britain to beef up their cooperation on security matters and share information.
Ansaru earlier claimed the kidnapping in December of a French national working on a renewable energy project in Nigeria's northern Katsina state. Meanwhile, a group of men claiming to belong to Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven French tourists from northern Cameroon late February -- a first for the group.
Analysts say Ansaru likely has closer ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Africa branch of the terror network. Analysts have warned that there likely will be more attacks by Ansaru targeting Westerners and Western interests in Nigeria, as well as neighboring nations. Ansaru initially said it carried out the kidnappings in part as a response to the French military intervention in Mali. The French, backed up by Malian soldiers, have been fighting the Islamic militants who seized control of northern cities there in the weeks following a coup that toppled the West African nation's democratically elected government.
Despite the deployment of more soldiers and police to northern Nigeria, the nation's weak central government has been unable to stop the killings. Meanwhile, human rights groups and local citizens blame both Boko Haram and security forces for committing violent atrocities against the local civilian population, fueling rage in the region.