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Last updated: March 8, 2012 8:23 pm
An attempt by British and Nigerian special forces to rescue two hostages believed held by a terrorist group in Nigeria failed on Thursday when the two detainees were killed by their captors, David Cameron, UK prime minister, announced.
The two hostages, Briton Christopher McManus and Italian Franco Lamolinara, were believed by Whitehall officials to have been seized by the jihadist group Boko Haram in the north of the country. Both men were killed by their captors as the joint operation was under way.
There were no indications of any fatalities among British and Nigerian forces involved in the operation, despite the firefight that took place.
Mr Cameron said the joint forces intervened to try and free Mr Lamolinara and Mr McManus because they were fearful their lives were under threat.
The two men were working for an Italian construction company in Birnin Kebbi city, in north-west Nigeria, where they were building the state headquarters for Nigeria’s central bank. They were kidnapped from their apartment on May 12 last year by unknown gunmen.
“A window of opportunity arose to secure their release,” Mr Cameron said. “We also had reason to believe that their lives were under imminent and growing danger. Preparations were made to mount an operation to attempt to rescue Chris and Franco.”
Mr Cameron added: “Together with the Nigerian government, today I authorised it to go ahead, with UK support. It is with great regret that I have to say that both Chris and Franco have lost their lives.”
Thursday’s operation throws a fresh spotlight on Boko Haram, which over the past year has been increasing its ties with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. The group, whose title means “western education is forbidden”, first became active nearly a decade ago in Nigeria’s north-east.
In recent months, the group has been increasingly seen by western security agencies as one of the fastest growing jihadist groups in the Middle East and Africa. Led by Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic young preacher who was critical of mainstream Islam and the corruption of state governors in the Muslim north, it has attracted a strong following among the area’s impoverished youth.
Last August a video of the hostages surfaced in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, with the two men on their knees and blindfolded. Three men wearing turbans and holding guns and ammunition were behind them.
“The terrorists holding the two hostages made very clear threats to take their lives, including in a video that was posted on the internet,” Mr Cameron said.
There have been a number of foreigners kidnapped while working in Nigeria in recent years. In September 2008 two Britons were held by the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta. A Scottish oil worker was abducted and his guard killed in April 2009, in the Rivers State capital Port Harcourt.
Three Britons and a Colombian were kidnapped in January 2010 and in November that same year, four men from the US, Canada and France were taken 7.5 miles offshore on the Okoro field. In January last year two French hostages were kidnapped from Niamey, the capital of neighbouring Niger to Nigeria’s north.
Kidnapping of foreigners in Nigeria normally occurs in the southern oil-rich delta region, but abductions are extremely rare in the northern part of the country. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb has kidnapped foreigners further north, in Niger, Mali and Algeria, but never before in Nigeria.
Security analysts say that Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgent group that mainly operates in north-east Nigeria, may have links to AQIM. While Boko Haram usually claims responsibility for its attacks, and has not done in relation to the two hostages killed on Thursday, officials believe the kidnappers may have had ties to the insurgents and to AQIM.
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