A little-known Islamic extremist group claimed responsibility Monday for the kidnapping of seven foreign workers from northern Nigeria, threatening their safety if anyone tried to intervene and free them.
The group that calls itself Ansaru issued a short statement, obtained by The Associated Press, in which it said its fighters kidnapped the foreigners Saturday night from a construction company's camp at Jama'are, a town about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Bauchi, the capital of Bauchi state.
Authorities said those kidnapped include one British citizen, one Greek, one Italian, three Lebanese and one Filipino, all employees of a Lebanese construction company called Setraco.
The statement said Ansaru committed the abduction "based on the transgression and atrocities shown to the religion of Allah by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali." Currently, the French military is conducting operations with the Malian army to rout Islamic fighters who took over that country's north in the weeks after a military coup there last year.
"It is stressed that any attempt or act contrary to our conditions by the European nations or by the Nigerian government will" endanger the hostages, the statement read. The statement offered no conditions, suggesting the group would later contact authorities to make a ransom demand.
Police and security officials in Nigeria did not immediately respond the statement. Greek and Italian diplomats have confirmed their citizens were abducted. Britain's Foreign Office said Monday it is aware of reports that a number of foreign nationals including a British national were abducted. It said the Foreign Office is in contact with the Nigerian authorities.
The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, issued a statement earlier Monday saying none of those taken were U.S. citizens.
In January 2012 Ansaru declared itself a breakaway group from Boko Haram, the north's main terrorist group, analysts say. Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege," has launched a guerrilla campaign of bombings and shootings across Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north. Boko Haram is blamed for at least 792 killings last year alone, according to an AP count.
Ansaru's aims are unknown — but they have a different message from Boko Haram, according to Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
"They seem to disagree with some of Boko Haram's strategies — in particular, they disagreed with Boko Haram's tendency to kill Muslims," Pantucci said. "They seem to be more internationally focused, they talk a lot more in global jihad terms and they seem very eager to cultivate that side of their image. It makes them more dangerous."
An analysis published Monday by Stratfor, a U.S.-based private global intelligence firm, suggested Ansaru had stronger ties with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Africa branch of the terror network. It warned that there likely will be more attacks by Ansaru targeting Westerners and Western interests in Nigeria, as well as neighboring nations.
"Kidnappings in northern Nigeria probably will become more frequent," Stratfor warned. "As al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb comes under more pressure in northern Mali, it will use all available means, including its affiliate groups, to continue its insurgency."
The attack Saturday in Jama'are saw gunmen first assault a local prison and burn police trucks, authorities said. Then the attackers blew up a back fence at the construction company's compound and took over, killing a guard in the process, witnesses and police said.
The gunmen appeared to be organized and knew who they wanted to target, a local construction worker who witnessed the attack told the AP. He said the Nigerian household staff members at the residence were left unharmed, while the foreigners were quickly abducted. The worker spoke on condition of anonymity as he's not authorized to speak to journalists.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, in a statement issued Monday through his office, condemned the attack and said he ordered security agencies to "take all necessary action" to locate and rescue the abducted construction workers.
"He assures the relatives of the kidnapped foreign workers as well as the governments of their countries that the federal government and its security agencies are doing everything possible to find their abductors and ensure the safe release of all those they abducted," the statement issued by spokesman Reuben Abati read.
The Ansaru statement hinted that it would kill the hostages and vaguely referenced a previous kidnapping. The group earlier claimed the kidnapping in December of a French national working on a renewal energy project in Nigeria's northern Katsina state.
Britain also linked Ansaru to the May 2011 kidnapping of Christopher McManus, who was abducted with Italian Franco Lamolinara from a home in Kebbi state. The men were held for months, before their captors killed in March 2012 them during a failed Nigerian military raid backed up by British special forces in Sokoto, the main city in Nigeria's northwest.
Authorities initially blamed Boko Haram for the kidnapping, something that it denied. That apparently represented the public's first brush with the group, whose motivations remain murky, but whose threat is increasingly real for foreigners in northern Nigeria.
In November, Britain's interior ministry announced that a parliamentary order that makes membership in or support of Ansaru a criminal offense.
Jon Gambrell reported from Johannesburg and can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .
Associated Press writers Cassandra Vinograd in London, Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.