ALGIERS, Algeria — Gunmen kidnapped three aid workers — two Spaniards and an Italian — from a refugee camp in Algeria, injuring one of the hostages and a local guard in the attack, officials said Sunday.
A military official in neighbouring Mauritania said the kidnappers are linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, but that could not immediately be confirmed and there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about sensitive security issues.
Algerian Foreign Ministry spokesman Amar Blani confirmed the kidnapping but would not comment on the motive or the identity of the kidnappers, according to the state news agency APS.
It hit a camp for refugees from the Western Sahara, a territory annexed by Morocco in 1975 after colonial ruler Spain pulled out.
The Algeria-based Polisario movement, which is seeking independence for Western Sahara and runs the refugee camp, said that gunmen kidnapped the three just before midnight Saturday in the Rabuni camp near Tindouf, Algeria.
In a statement, it said the attackers came from the direction of neighbouring Mali in four-wheel drive vehicles and “left from where they came.”
It identified the hostages as Italian woman Rossella Urru, Spanish woman Ainhoa Fernandez Rincon and Spanish man Enrico Gonyans. Polisario said Gonyans and one of the workers’ Saharawi guards were injured in the attack, without elaborating.
“The Saharawi authorities have taken measures to track down the perpetrators of this kidnapping,” it said.
The governments of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and other countries in the region are struggling against AQIM, which sprang from an Algerian Muslim extremist movement and has spread throughout swaths of the sparsely populated Sahara Desert.
Many Western Saharan refugees fled from the mineral-rich territory when the Moroccans moved in, and have remained in Algerian camps close to the border with their former homeland.
AQIM has not been known to target the camps for Western Sahara refugees in the past. The attack goes against Moroccan suggestions that AQIM and the Polisario work together to target Moroccan interests.
Moroccan Communications Minister Khaled Naciri told The Associated Press earlier this month that while there is no direct evidence of co-operation, it’s possible that the members of both groups occasionally work together.
Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez confirmed that two Spaniards were kidnapped. “We are going to deploy all of our diplomatic and consular capacity to ensure these aid workers return home,” Jimenez said.
Jose Miguel Suarez, a co-ordinator for the aid organization Friends of the Saharawi People in Spain, also confirmed the taking of the Spanish hostages.
Italy’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Urru was one of the captives, and said she works for the Italian Committee for the Development of Peoples, but urged the media to limit its reporting on the kidnapping.
Urru had been co-ordinating humanitarian assistance in the refugee camp for two years, the director of her development agency, Paolo Dieci, told Itay’s Sky TG24. He said there had never been any similar incidents in the quarter century the group has been active in the region.