NAIROBI, Kenya -- Western governments Sunday reported that a violent Islamist militia in northern Nigeria had likely executed seven foreign hostages, deaths that the governments called barbaric and cold-blooded.
The group, Ansaru, announced Saturday that it had executed seven construction workers who were kidnapped last month in what appeared to be a well-planned, targeted attack.
The Italian Foreign Ministry and Greek Foreign Ministry announced Sunday that they believed the claim.
"The verifications carried out in coordination with the other interested countries lead us to believe that the news of the killing of the hostages is founded. This is a horrific act of terrorism for which there is no explanation except barbaric and blind violence," the Italian foreign ministry said in a statement.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was believed that a British hostage had likely been killed by his captors.
"This was an act of cold-blooded murder, which I condemn in the strongest terms. Responsibility for this tragic outcome rests squarely with the terrorists," he said.
The hostages included three Lebanese, with the others from Italy, Britain, Greece and the Philippines.
Ansaru is a breakaway group from the Nigerian Islamist insurgent group, Boko Haram, which has been mounting regular attacks in northern Nigeria since around 2009.
Northern Nigeria, with many construction operations involving foreign workers, has become a dangerous destination for Westerners, with hostage ransoms big business for Al Qaeda-linked militias and the criminal gangs who sometimes sell hostages to other groups.
Gunmen attacked a compound owned by a Lebanese-owned company, Setraco, on Feb. 16 in Bauchi state in Nigeria's north and seized the workers, announcing that it was acting in revenge for European actions in Mali and Afghanistan. It warned that if there were any efforts to mount a rescue, the hostages would be killed.
France intervened in Mali in January, to oust a group of Al Qaeda-linked militias that had seized the north of the country.
The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist sites, reported Saturday that the group had announced the killings. SITE aired a screenshot from an Islamist site, taken from what appeared to be a video of several bodies at the foot of a gunman.
"In the communique, the group stated that the attempts by the British and Nigerian governments to rescue the hostages, and their alleged arrest and killing of people, forced it to carry out the execution," SITE said. The group cited British warplanes spotted on the runway at the main airport in the capital, Abuja, which it believed were deployed to rescue the hostages.
Announcing the killings "in the name of Allah most beneficent most merciful," Ansaru also cited statements by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan that the authorities would do all in their power to rescue the hostages.
Western governments, however, said Sunday there had been no rescue attempt.
The British government said the planes were deployed to support France's mission in Mali, ferrying troops involved in the operation. Italy and Greece also denied any effort at a rescue mission.
Ansaru announced its split from Boko Haram a year ago. The group killed two hostages, one British and one Italian, in northern Nigeria last March as Nigerian security forces backed by British special forces tried to mount a rescue operation.
The men, Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara, had been taken hostage the previous year, while working for a construction company in Kebbi state in the northwest of the country.
Ansaru is also believed to be responsible for the kidnapping of a French engineer who worked for a French wind farm company, Vergnet SA. That kidnapping was in December in Katsina state. Some 30 gunmen stormed the man’s house and kidnapped him.
Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings of a French family, including four children 12 years and under, in its first reported kidnapping of foreigners. The abductions suggest that Boko Haram, like other militias in West Africa, may be developing a more global agenda.
The family was abducted in Cameroon last month and then taken across the border into Nigeria by motorcycle.
Boko Haram is believed to have links with the Al Qaeda affiliate in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of several militias operating in Mali, but it has previously focused largely on its war against the Nigerian government and security forces in its bid to impose sharia law across the country. It has also mounted attacks on Christians.