Nigerian security forces have surrounded the kidnappers of seven French tourists in the northeast of the country and are working to free the hostages, a security official in Borno state said.
Members of the Nigerian army and police Joint Task Force found the group in an area between Dikwa and Ngala, about 780 kilometers (485 miles) northeast of the capital, Abuja, the official said by phone today from Maiduguri, the state capital. He declined to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak to the media about the operation.
The tourists, including four children, were seized on Feb. 19 at the village of Dabanga in neighboring Cameroon before being taken across the border. French security forces have helped Cameroonian authorities hunt for the abductors, said Awah Fonka Augustine, governor of Cameroon’s Far North Region.
BFMTV, a French broadcaster, reported earlier today that the hostages had been released, citing unidentified people in the Cameroonian military. Cameroonian authorities have yet to confirm that information, Defense Ministry spokesman Didier Badjeck said in a phone interview from Yaounde, the capital.
Cameroon government spokesman Issa Tchiroma declined to comment on the Nigerian operation.
“It’s a top state secret to discuss in detail security cooperation between nations,” he said in an interview in the capital, Yaounde.
GDF Suez SA, the French utility that’s building a liquid natural gas project in southern Cameroon, said the kidnapped tourists include one of its employees and family members.
Their abductions came a day after an Islamist group in Nigeria claimed responsibility for taking seven foreigners hostage at a construction site in the northeastern state of Bauchi.
Jamaatu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladissudan, or “Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in the Land of the Blacks,” said it took the hostages as a response to “the transgressions and atrocities done to the religion of Allah” by European nations in countries including Mali and Afghanistan.
France has about 4,000 troops in Mali, where it intervened to fight Islamists and rebel forces to restore state control over a nation that vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer. Fighting between French special forces and Islamist militants is now in the “final phase” and France will start withdrawing troops in a few weeks, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday.
Ansaru, as the group is known, also claimed responsibility for the Dec. 20 kidnapping of French engineer Francis Colump from his home in the northern Nigerian city of Katsina.
The government of Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer, has been battling Boko Haram, another militant Islamist group that has carried out gun and bomb attacks in the north and Abuja which killed hundreds of people since 2009.
Separately, Nigerian authorities said yesterday they had arrested three people suspected of being members of an Iran-linked terror cell planning attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets in Lagos, the country’s commercial capital.
The group had been gathering information on the Lagos offices of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Haifa-based ZIM Integrated Shipping Services Ltd. and the Jewish Cultural Center, said Marilyn Ogar, spokeswoman for the Department of State Services.