7 people kidnapped in Nigeria; police, navy patrol intensify search

– Nigerian police and navy patrol boats intensified efforts Thursday, June 23 to find a group of construction workers including three Australians, two Nigerians, a New Zealander and a South African kidnapped in an ambush that killed their driver, police said, according to the Associated Press.

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.

Nigerian newspapers quoted witnesses as 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 Nigeria but generally involves no fatalities. Hostages are returned unharmed once money exchanges hands, though a German construction worker was killed in southwestern 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.