A manhunt is underway for a gang suspected of abducting a British-led missionary team working in a crime-plagued region of southern Nigeria.
The four missionaries, who include a former GP from Cambridge and his wife, were abducted from their accommodation in a remote part of Nigeria’s Delta State late last Friday night.
They had been operating a series of clinics there for the past 14 years, despite the high risk across Delta State from kidnappers, armed robbers and pirates.
Zanna Ibrahim, Delta’s police commissioner, said the prime suspects were a local militant group called the Karowei, and that the kidnapping may have been in response to “Operation Crocodile Smile”, a recent law and order operation.
“The kidnap may not be unconnected with the present onslaught on militant activities embarked upon by the military, codenamed Operation Crocodile Smile,” Mr Ibrahim said.
The identity of the missionary team is known to The Daily Telegraph, but is not being published at the request of the Foreign Office. The GP and his wife, both 57, operate four clinics that offer free medical treatment, including immunisations and natal classes.
The British charity that the missionaries work with describes its aim as “to train, resource and remunerate local workers, and to partner with government and other NGO’s in work that is driven and underpinned through a faith in Jesus Christ.”
Much of the missionaries is done in the Delta’s so-called “riverine” areas – dense swamps and creeks accessible only by boat. The Foreign Office advises against travelling to such areas because they lie mostly beyond the reach of the law and are havens for militant groups.
While such groups generally target oil workers based in nearby Port Harcourt for kidnap, other Westerners can also be considered a target.
Unlike Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group that operates in north-east Nigeria, such kidnappings are usually carried out for ransom and are resolved relatively quickly.
Chief Theo Fakama, from the local Enukorowa community, said villagers were upset by the kidnapping as the missionaries had “brought succour to residents of the community for the past three years”.
British missionaries first came to southern Nigeria a century ago, spreading Christianity and setting up many schools that remain in operation today. However, it is relatively unusual for Western missionaries to operate there today, not least because of the kidnapping risk.
While the team may have relied partly on the goodwill of the local community for protection, one Western kidnap consultant with experience of southern Nigeria told The Daily Telegraph: “I am surprised that these missionaries were there for as long as they were without an incident like this happening earlier. Around 50 per cent of all kidnappings worldwide are incidents where people have effectively sleepwalked into it.”
Mr Ibrahim, the police commissioner, said that an anti-kidnapping team was “already on the trail of the suspects”. A spokesman for the charity said it was liaising with the Foreign Office.
The missing GP is understood to be an evangelical Christian, and has two university-educated sons also working for the mission. They are not understood to be among those abducted.
Father Ralph Madu, Secretary General of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, said: “Abductions of this kind happen frequently both in Delta state and others nearby.”
“It is most likely that that the four who were kidnapped just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; I would doubt that they were targeted because they are Christians.”
John Pontifex, from Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity that monitors the welfare of Christians worldwide, said: “This incident is a salutary reminder that violence and oppression in Nigeria is by no means confined to the north of the country which has been terrorised by Boko Haram and other militant groups. People all over Nigeria are at risk from organised crime. We very much hope and pray that all four will soon be released safe and sound.”
Last weekend an Italian priest, Maurizio Pallu, was abducted outside Benin City, the capital of neighbouring Edo State. He was released in good health after spending three days held in a forest.
A previous kidnapping victim in Nigeria was Chris McManus, 28, a quantity surveyor from Oldham who was working for an engineering company in the northern city of Bernin Kebbi when he was abducted by a militant Islamist group. His abductors killed him during a raid to free him carried out by a joint team of British special forces and local troops in March 2013.