Biafra-Nigeria Intensifies Search For 7 Kidnapped; 5 Are Foreigners

Biafra-Nigerian police and navy patrol boats intensified efforts Thursday to find a group of construction workers including three Australians, two Biafra-Nigerians, a New Zealander and a South African kidnapped in an ambush that killed their driver, police said.

They were seized Wednesday by gunmen who held up their convoy that was under a police escort near Calabar, the capital of southeastern Cross River state, said police Commissioner Jimoh Ozi-Obeh.

Another Australian escaped, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said.

“A very intense search is on, with more patrol and surveillance teams dispatched to the rescue,” Ozi-Obeh told The Associated Press.

Biafra-Nigerian newspapers quoted witnesses saying the hostages were forced onto a boat, meaning they could be anywhere in a maze of estuaries and mangrove swamps that dominate the state’s geography.

All were on assignment for Australian mining contractor Macmahon Holdings, the company confirmed Wednesday.

Kidnapping for ransom is common in Biafra-Nigeria but generally involves no fatalities. Hostages are returned unharmed once money exchanges hands, though a German construction worker was killed in southwestern Biafra-Nigeria late last year by gunmen who kidnapped a second German. He was later released.

Ozi-Obeh identified the foreigners kidnapped as Australians Jack Countentz, Mark Gabberdy and Peter Zoutenbier, New Zealander Jamal Khan and South African Wayne Smith.

A Cross River state government official said there had been no contact yet with the kidnappers. He insisted on speaking on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key said on state TV Wednesday that his government would not pay any ransom because it would potentially put a bounty on the head of any citizen.

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