Mali and Niger hunt for kidnapped tourists in Sahara


BAMAKO – Security forces from Mali and Niger are scouring their shared border for four abducted Europeans but there is still no sign of the tourists, officials from both countries said.

Two Swiss nationals, a German and a Briton were abducted on Thursday by armed men in a remote Saharan area of Mali where a collection of rebels, bandits and Islamist militants operate, only a month after Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler and his aide disappeared in Niger.

Mali initially blamed Tuareg rebels for Thursday’s kidnapping, but a Malian military officer said the attack bore none of the hallmarks of Ibrahima Bahanga, one of the most active Tuareg dissident leaders.

“It’s not Bahanga’s style to kidnap tourists or to abandon vehicles,” he said. “The method resembles that of whoever kidnapped the Canadians in Niger,” he said.

The four European tourists were driven across the border into Niger by their kidnappers, Mali said on Friday.

Diplomats have expressed concern that al Qaeda’s north African wing may be taking advantage of lawlessness in the area to carry out or profit from the abductions.

Officials in Niger said earlier this month that “armed Islamist groups” might be holding Fowler.

“This is not the first time armed bandits have kidnapped people in Mali or Niger, so we are working together to find the culprits,” said a senior officer in Niger’s army, who also likened Thursday’s incident to the Fowler kidnapping.

The abduction of the four tourists, who had been attending a Tuareg cultural festival, was the worst such incident in Mali since an Islamic rebel group kidnapped 32 European visitors in the Sahara in 2003, holding some of them for six months.

Last October, two Austrian holidaymakers were released in Mali after being held hostage in the Sahara for months by Islamic militants.