by Aminu Abubakar, Agence France-Presse | 02/18/2013 7:11 AM
KANO, Nigeria - Gunmen stormed a construction site in northern Nigeria, kidnapping seven foreign workers and killing a security guard, police said Sunday, in one of the worst attacks on expatriates in the restive region.
Two Lebanese, an Italian and a Greek have been confirmed by their governments to be among those seized in the attack late Saturday on the Setraco construction site in the town of Jama'are in Bauchi State.
Bauchi, where Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has carried out repeated attacks, saw two separate gun raids earlier Saturday, but it was not clear if the Islamists were behind the violence.
Kidnappings targetting expatriates have long been a scourge in Nigeria's oil-rich south.
While such incidents in the north have been isolated, Islamist group Ansaru, seen as an offshoot of Boko Haram, appears to have made the abduction of foreigners a priority after it claimed the kidnapping of a French national in December.
"From the report we have received, the hostages are seven in all. They include four Lebanese, an Italian, a Briton and a Greek," Bauchi state police spokesman Hassan Auyo said.
Britain's Foreign Office said it was "aware of reports" that a Briton was seized and was making enquiries, without confirming the information.
The Lebanese foreign ministry said two of its citizens were among those taken, but did not match the Nigerian police figure of four.
Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos said in a statement that he had contacted his Italian counterpart regarding a response, adding that a plane was on standby should it be necessary to send a party from Athens to Nigeria.
Local government chairman Adamu Aliyu told AFP that residents believed a Lebanese mother and daughter were in the group taken by the gunmen, but those details could not be verified by police.
A security guard at the Setraco site was shot dead in the raid in Jama'are, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the state capital, Bauchi's police chief Mohammed Ladan told AFP.
Setraco Nigeria, a construction and civil engineering company with a road project in the region, is a subsidiary of Lebanese-owned Setraco International Holding group.
The attack on the site came after the same gunmen were repelled while trying to storm a police station and a prison in the town, the police chief said.
Gunmen also launched a similar attack on a police station in the town of Kafin Madaki, 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the state capital, triggering a shootout but causing no casualties, Ladan said.
Boko Haram, a group blamed for hundreds of deaths in northern Nigeria since 2009, has claimed several attacks on police stations as part of an insurgency it says is aimed at creating an Islamic state in the mostly Muslim north.
The south of the country, Africa's most populous with about 160 million people, is predominantly Christian.
Kidnappings in the south, typically involving foreign oil workers, have often seen hostages released following a ransom payment, but such incidents in the north are considered a different phenomenon.
A rights activist and expert on religious violence in northern Nigeria, Shehu Sani, said Islamists in the region may have turned to kidnappings to "attract further international attention".
He said it is difficult to assess Ansaru as a distinct threat from Boko Haram until it becomes possible to "establish a clear leader of the group," separate from purported Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau.
Many sought to blame Boko Haram for the kidnapping of a Briton and an Italian in the north in 2011, as well as the seizure of a German outside the region's largest city last year. All three died in captivity.
But Boko Haram, which occasionally claims attacks, has never acknowledged involvement in the abductions of Westerners.
Ansaru raised its profile in claiming the abduction of the French citizen in the northern state of Katsina in December, but little is yet known about the group.
It is thought to have forged closer ties with Al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa who have profitted from the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom.
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