Unknown assailants kidnapped a group of European tourists on Thursday, including two Swiss, one German and a Briton, in Niger near the Malian border, a regional governor in Mali said.
“We just finished the latest verification and there are a total of four European tourists kidnapped on Niger’s territory close to the border with Mali: one German national, one British national and two Swiss nationals,” said General Amadou Baba Toure, governor of Gao province.
The group had been returning from a festival of nomad culture at Anderamboukane on the border between Mali and Niger, when they were seized, the Malian authorities said.
A source in the Malian security forces confirmed the kidnapping, adding that it took place at Bani-Bangou, 60km from the border with Mali.
The Anderamboukane festival takes place in January of every odd year and is billed as a transborder celebration of Tuareg culture, music, sports and crafts. It ran from Monday through Thursday this year.
Germany’s foreign ministry confirmed it had received information that a German woman had disappeared in Mali.
“The foreign ministry and the [German] embassy in Bamako are following information that a German woman disappeared today in the middle of the day in Mali,” a ministry spokesman said.
“They are trying to shed light on what happened,” the spokesman said.
In London, Britain’s foreign ministry said it had heard the reports of the kidnapping but could not confirm British nationals were involved.
The north of Mali has been the scene of violent clashes between Tuareg rebel groups and the Malian army in recent years.
Mali’s defense ministry said 31 Tuareg rebels were killed in a military offensive on Thursday.
The Tuaregs are a nomadic desert people who have roamed the southern Sahara for centuries. In recent years they have staged uprisings in both Mali and Niger, claiming autonomy for their traditional homeland.
Experts say there are up to 1.5 million Tuaregs sprawled over nearly 2 million square kilometers of land covering parts of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Niger and Mali. The majority live in Niger (700,000) and Mali (300,000).
Two Canadian diplomats, one of them the UN envoy to Niger, disappeared in Niger early last month and are presumed kidnapped.
The car of UN envoy Robert Fowler and his assistant Louis Guay were travelling in was discovered on Dec. 15 at the side of the road in an apparently trouble-free area close to the capital Niamey. Its engine was running and the vehicle’s doors were wide open.
Last week Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja said the diplomats were being held by terrorist groups.
“All the investigations undertaken indicate they are being held hostage by terrorist groups,” Tanja said, referring to the Tuareg rebel groups operating in the north of the country.