ROME – European diplomats said Sunday that seven foreign hostages kidnapped in northern Nigeria had been killed as claimed by Islamic extremists, the worst such foreign abduction violence to hit this turbulent West African nation in decades.
Both Britain and Italy said all seven of those taken from northern Bauchi state on Feb. 16 were killed by the group known as Ansaru. Greece also confirmed one of its citizens was killed, while Lebanese authorities did not immediately comment.
"It's an atrocious act of terrorism, against which the Italian government expresses its firmest condemnation, and which has no explanation, if not that of barbarous and blind violence," a statement from Italy's foreign ministry read. Italy also flatly denied a claim by Ansaru that the hostages were killed before or during a military operation by Nigerian and British forces, saying there was "no military intervention aimed at freeing the hostages."
Italian Premier Mario Monti identified the slain Italian hostage as Silvano Trevisan and promised the Rome government will use "every effort" to stop the killers. British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the killings "an act of cold-blooded murder."
A statement from Greece's foreign ministry said authorities had already informed the hostage's family.
"We note that the terrorists never communicated or formulated demands to release the hostages," the statement read, which also denied any military raid took place.
Ansaru previously issued a short statement saying 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. In the attack gunmen first assaulted a local prison and burned 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.
Those kidnapped included four Lebanese citizens and one citizen apiece from Britain, Greece and Italy.
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 an online statement Saturday claiming the killings, Ansaru said it killed the hostages in part due to local Nigerian journalists reporting on the arrival of British military aircraft to Bauchi, the northern state where the abductions occurred. However, the online statement from Ansaru cited local news articles that instead said the airplanes were spotted at the international airport in Abuja, the nation's capital.
The British Ministry of Defense said Sunday that the planes it flew to Abuja ferried Nigerian troops and equipment to Bamako, Mali. Nigerian soldiers have been sent to Mali to help French forces and Malian troops battle Islamic extremists there. The British military said it also transported Ghanaian soldiers to Mali the same way.
The British ministry declined to comment further. Ansaru had said it believed the planes were part of a Nigerian and British rescue mission for the abducted hostages.
The U.K. has offered military support in the past in Nigeria to free hostages. In March 2012, its special forces backed a failed Nigerian military raid to free Christopher McManus, who had been abducted months earlier with Italian Franco Lamolinara from a home in Kebbi state. Both hostages were killed in that rescue attempt.
"I am grateful to the Nigerian Government for their unstinting help and cooperation," Hague said in his statement, without addressing the claim that the U.K. had launched a rescue effort.
In its statement Saturday, Ansaru also blamed the killings on a pledge by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to do "everything possible" to free the hostages. Presidential spokesman Reuben Abati did not respond to requests for comment.
While Nigerian authorities have yet to comment publicly about Ansaru's claim, it comes as the nation's security forces remain unable to stop the guerrilla campaign of bombings, shootings and kidnappings across the country's north.
In January 2012, 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 Associated Press count. An online video also purportedly claims that Boko Haram is currently holding hostage a family of seven French tourists who were abducted from neighboring Cameroon in late February.
The killings appear to be the worst in decades targeting foreigners working in Nigeria, an oil-rich nation that's a major crude supplier to the United States. Most kidnappings in the country's southern oil delta see foreigners released after companies pay ransoms. The latest kidnappings in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, however, have seen the hostages killed either by their captors or in military raids to free them, suggesting a new level of danger for expatriate workers there.
The worst violence targeting foreign workers previously in the country's history came during its 1960s civil war. In May 1969, forces with the breakaway Republic of Biafra raided a Nigerian oil field, killing 10 Italian oil workers and a Jordanian. Eighteen other foreign workers taken by Biafran soldiers faced the death penalty, but later were pardoned and released.