An al Qaeda-linked Islamist group has kidnapped a Red Cross team working in northern Mali, a spokesperson for the militants, known as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), said on Tuesday.
The members of the International Committee of the Red Cross team "are alive and in good health" a MUJAO official told AFP by telephone from the capital, Bamako.
MUJAO is one of the groups allied to the regional al Qaeda offshoot – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM – that seized control of northern Mali in 2012 before being driven back by a French-led military intervention launched in January last year.
"Thanks to God we seized a 4X4 [vehicle] of the enemies of Islam with their accomplices," MUJAO official Yoro Abdoulsalam said.
Abdoulsalam confirmed that those abducted were the same International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team that had been reported missing in recent days. ICRC spokesman Alexis Heeb said Monday that four ICRC staff members and a veterinarian from another aid organisation went missing on Saturday on the road between the towns of Kidal and Gao.
All five individuals are Malian citizens.
Christoph Luedi, the head of the ICRC Mali delegation, said in a statement that the group "were on the way from Kidal to their base in Gao".
"At this stage we're exploring all possibilities. We're extremely worried and we're contacting everyone to try to localise them," Heeb said.
For security reasons, ICRC teams make regular contact every few hours with their base when they are on mission, and the team had done so for part of its journey.
ICRC operations in Mali range from visiting people detained during the country's conflict to providing aid to the hundreds of thousands of people who were driven from their homes by fighting.
Mali descended into chaos when Tuareg separatists allied with Islamist groups took over the north after a military coup in March 2012 far to the south in the capital Bamako. The Islamists later routed the Tuareg who made a comeback following the French intervention.
The humanitarian crisis sparked by the conflict came on top of years of drought in the Sahel region that have left 800,000 Malians relying on food aid.
Former colonial power France launched a military intervention in January 2013 after the Islamists started an advance on Bamako.
Fears of Islamist upsurge in Gao
French troops pushed the Islamists out of northern towns early last year and have kept up operations against lingering groups of insurgents.
France is winding down its force from a peak of around 5,000 soldiers but is to keep 1,000 troops in Mali beyond the spring.
UN peacekeepers took over security in July last year from a pan-African military mission that had been supporting the French troops.
The UN mission played a key security role in presidential polls last year which saw former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita become the country's first democratically elected leader since the 2012 coup.
The Red Cross kidnapping comes against a backdrop of tensions in the Gao region, where several residents said the MUJAO is again gaining ascendancy.
A regional Malian official said that dozens of armed men believed to be MUJAO members burst into the community of Djebock, about 50 kilometres from Gao, looking for a Tuareg leader on Monday. The man in question was absent when they entered the community and the Islamists ended up leaving empty-handed, the official said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-02-11