JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- An extremist splinter group Monday claimed responsibility for the weekend kidnapping of seven foreigners in northern Nigeria.
The group, Ansaru, broke away from the Islamist insurgent organization Boko Haram, which has been mounting regular attacks in the north in recent years.
Gunmen attacked a prison on Saturday in Jamaare, Bauchi state, then blasted their way into a housing compound for foreign workers employed by a Lebanese construction company, Setraco, and seized the seven foreigners.
There are contradictory reports as to the nationalities of the hostages. The Associated Press reported those held included a Briton, a Greek, an Italian, three Lebanese and a Filipino.
Ansaru said in a statement that it taken the hostages in reprisal for the actions of European countries in Afghanistan and Mali, where France recently launched a military campaign to drive out militants linked to Al Qaeda.
The kidnapping was “based on the transgression and atrocities done to the religion of Allah by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali,” according to a Ansaru statement reported by news agencies.
The statement warned that the hostages would be killed if there was any rescue attempt, but it made no demands.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday deplored the attack and said he had ordered security services to do everything in their power to safely free the hostages.
Ansaru’s statement suggests that unlike Boko Haram, the group is focused on mounting attacks on foreign targets, making it potentially a greater global terror threat than its parent organization.
It also suggests possible links between the group and insurgents tied to Al Qaeda who seized control of much of Mali in April, only to be driven out of major towns and cities in January by French and Malian forces.
Boko Haram has so far been focused on local grievances, and aims to create a state in Nigeria governed by Islamic sharia law. Its attacks have been mainly against Nigerian security forces, Christian churches and public locations such as beer gardens, but in 2011 it mounted a suicide bombing at the United Nations headquarters in the capital, Abuja, killing more than 20 people.
Boko Haram is believed to have links with the Al Qaeda affiliate in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, one of several militias operating in Mali.
The degree of cooperation between Islamist extremists in various African countries isn’t clear. However, U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, has warned of the danger that the groups could link up and cooperate to launch attacks on U.S. and Western targets.
Ansaru announced its split from Boko Haram a year ago. The group killed two hostages, one British and one Italian, in northern Nigeria in March as Nigerian security forces backed by British special forces tried to mount a rescue operation.
In a video released earlier in that incident, the kidnappers claimed to be members of Al Qaeda. The hostages, Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara, had been taken hostage the previous year while working for a construction company in Kebbi state.
Nigerian security forces said the group responsible for killing McManus and Lamolinara was a faction of Boko Haram, but that all those involved in the hostage-taking had been killed.
Ansaru is also believed to be responsible for the December kidnapping of a French engineer working for wind farm company Vergnet SA. About 30 gunmen stormed his house in Katsina state and took him away.
Like many other parts of West Africa, northern Nigeria has become dangerous for foreigners, a region where kidnappings of Westerners has become a lucrative business. In some countries, criminal gangs kidnap foreigners and hand them on to AQIM, which has been able to bankroll its operations on the multimillion-dollar ransoms.
AQIM is holding seven French hostages in Mali, kidnapped there and in Niger over the past two years. Last month, French military officials said the captives were alive.