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Article updated: 10/15/2012 8:20 AM

Governor: 6 aid workers kidnapped in central Niger

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By Associated Press

NIAMEY, Niger -- Six aid group employees were abducted from the guesthouse where they were sleeping in a central Niger town, an eyewitness and the provincial governor said Monday.

Men in two Toyota pickup trucks pulled up to a guesthouse run by CARE International in the town of Dakoro late Sunday and seized five Nigeriens and a worker from Chad, said Sidi Mohamed, the governor of the Maradi region. All six Africans work for the aid group "Bien-Etre Familiale," or "Family Health," he said. The guesthouse is frequented by international aid workers who use Dakoro as a base to carry out projects in the grasslands that extend to the north, and are home to the dwindling nomadic communities that still live off of their camels and cows.

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Mohamed said the abductors were likely looking for foreign nationals. The CARE guesthouse is the only accommodation in Dakoro, and its three, modest bedrooms are often booked for weeks at a stretch by workers for foreign charities. That was especially the case this summer, as aid workers focused their attention on helping the nomads, many of whom lost their livestock due to the brutal drought that hit the area this year.

"They were taken by unidentified individuals who came in the night aboard two 4-by-4 pickup trucks," said the governor. "They took six people -- five Nigeriens and one Chadian. For the moment, we are trying to pursue them. They went north toward Tahoua."

"I have always said that there are criminal elements in this area, and I have asked aid workers to take a security detail. But when we preach prudence, people think we are overreacting," said Mohamed.

Much of northern Niger has become off-limits to foreigners due to the threat of kidnapping by al-Qaida's local affiliate, based in neighboring Mali. The affiliate, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is still holding four of the seven employees of French nuclear giant Areva, who were kidnapped two years ago in the northern Niger town of Arlit.

Dakoro, however, was considered safe. The town is about a 2-hour drive from the district capital of Maradi which has been a hub for international aid groups dealing with the massive hunger crisis that has hit the Sahel. Charities including MSF-Belgium and UNICEF run programs in the area to help malnourished children.

Moussa Ali, a Dakoro resident living near the guesthouse, said he happened to be walking by when he saw the two Toyota pickup trucks pull in to the guesthouse. He said he realized they were rebels because they were well-armed.

"They came in two Toyotas and sped off toward the north, after having forced the hostages into the car," said Ali.

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