Security officials are intensifying their search for an American tourist and her local guide kidnapped this week after armed men ambushed them on a game drive in a national park in southwest Uganda.
Four gunmen held a group of three tourists and their guide at gunpoint Tuesday evening, then “grabbed two out of four ... before disappearing with them,” police said in a statement. The other two tourists escaped unharmed.
The kidnappers have since used one of the victims’ phones to demand $500,000, police said.
A U.S. State Department official said that federal authorities are “aware of reports that an American citizen was kidnapped in the Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth National Park” and that Ugandan “security forces are responding to the area.”
The State Department has not identified the American woman, but news reports have identified her as Kimberley Sue Endecott of Costa Mesa.
Earlier this week, at an event unrelated to the Uganda incident, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo addressed the families of American hostages and stressed that “any payment to a terrorist or a terrorist regime gives money so that they can seize more of our people.”
“We cannot accept that risk. You wouldn’t ask that of us,” Pompeo said. “Even a small payment to a group in, say, Africa can facilitate the killing or seizure of tens or even hundreds of others, including Americans or foreign nationals in that region.”
Ugandan police said Wednesday that they had dispatched an elite group of police officers, military personnel and wildlife authority officials to assist in the search. The park’s Ishasha Wilderness Camp area, where the ambush occurred, is a popular tourist destination close to the border with Congo.
On Wednesday, police said in a statement that they “strongly believe” the kidnappers and the victims “could still be trapped within our search area, and we are hopeful that our efforts will lead to their successful recovery.”
But on Thursday, CNN quoted a police spokeswoman, Polly Namaye, as saying, “Joint security teams have cut off all exit areas on the border between Uganda and [Congo] in search for the victims.”
Last May, Ugandan police said that more than 40 kidnappings had been reported in recent months, causing “growing anxiety in our society.” In June, Ugandans took to the streets to protest what they call government inaction in confronting the problem, which disproportionately affects women. After several kidnapping victims were killed, activists left coffins in front of parliament in protest.
The Ugandan ambassador in Washington, Mull Katende, stressed Thursday that it is very unusual for a tourist to be kidnapped in Uganda, which has a thriving tourism industry based largely on its national parks and wildlife. Katende said this incident is “the first time I’m hearing” of a tourist kidnapping.
Bashir Hangi, a spokesman for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, told Reuters that tourists in the park are not supposed to partake in game drives without an armed ranger but that this group “went out on their own without a guard.”
“From their camp in the park, they just got into a vehicle and went out,” he said. “They should have notified us and informed us that they’re going out for a game drive, and then we would have availed them a guard, but they didn’t do this.”