Gunmen believed to be Boko Haram Islamists have kidnapped 10 members of an oil exploration team in northeast Nigeria, colleagues and the state-run oil firm said on Wednesday.
The abduction of the high-profile targets is the latest in the restive region, which security experts said was a clear sign the jihadists are cash-strapped and needed money.
Ndu Ughamadu, of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, said the team had been contracted to carry out research work on oil exploration activities in the Lake Chad basin.
“About 10 staff from the survey and geological department of the University of Maiduguri were abducted on Tuesday,” he told AFP.
“They were kidnapped around Jibi village in Borno state after a gun duel between the security agents accompanying them and suspected Boko Haram fighters.”
Efforts were under way to track down the captors before a possible rescue operation. Jibi village is in the Magumeri area of Borno, northwest of the state capital, Maiduguri.
University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID) spokesman Danjuma Gambo confirmed the abduction and said the institution was awaiting further details from security operatives.
“There is no denying the fact that this incident happened, involving our staff, NNPC workers and security escorts from the military and the (civilian militia),” he added.
“Our staff who were recruited as consultants were on the team that was ambushed.”
There was no official comment from the military or police.
But a humanitarian worker in the Magumeri area said there were about 30 people in the exploration team, including the university staff, armed soldiers and the militia.
“Unknown to them, Boko Haram had lain in wait and dug holes, pits and trenches,” he said on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
“Some of the vehicles fell into the holes and immediately Boko Haram started shooting heavily at the trapped vehicles. The escort fought back but they were overpowered.”
The aid worker said four of the 30 had made it to Magumeri and three had gunshot wounds. Some survivors had managed to flee but it was unclear how many, he added.
Another member of staff at UNIMAID, who asked not to be named, said the oil prospecting team had been working in Magumeri for the last month.
“It was clear Boko Haram studied their movements before attacking them,” he said.
– ‘All about money’ –
Oil production has been concentrated in Nigeria’s southern Niger Delta region since it was first found in commercial quantities in 1956.
But repeated attacks by militants wanting a fairer share of profits for local people has hit production, cutting government revenues.
Exploration has been started in inland basins ranging from central Benue state to Boko Haram’s heartland in northeast.
But insecurity caused by the jihadists’ insurgency over the last eight years has disrupted work and the latest kidnapping underlines the continued threat.
Boko Haram has used kidnapping as a weapon of war in the conflict. Thousands of women and girls have been seized, and men and boys have been made to fight in the Islamist ranks.
Recent kidnappings of more high-profile targets appear to have a financial motivation.
On June 20, armed gunmen abducted 10 women, said to be civil servants, after an attack on a convoy of vehicles travelling towards the town of Damboa from Maiduguri.
In May, Britain and the United States updated security advice for their nationals in northeast Nigeria, warning that Boko Haram was “actively planning” to kidnap foreign workers.
A security source in northeast Nigeria said the kidnapping on the Damboa road last month was “all about money”, as Boko Haram was “in a serious cash squeeze”.
“They are looking for money and want to force the government to dole out ransom,” the source added.
“They’ve tried with the 10 women hostages but the government hasn’t played ball.
“Now they are trying with the prospectors since foreign hostages are hard to come by in the area.”