NIAMEY: Niger's security forces Tuesday were tracking five aid workers and a driver from the region who were kidnapped over the weekend by gunmen who initially planned to abduct an Italian anthropologist, officials said.
The aid workers -- four of them from Niger and one from Chad -- as well as the driver were snatched from a house in the southern village of Dakoro and have since been spotted in the desert north, not far from Islamist-controlled Mali.
"They were spotted in northwestern Niger," in an area between Agadez, a Tuareg stronghold and the main northern town, and the Malian border, an Agadez official told AFP.
"All air and land capabilities have been deployed to find them," he said on condition of anonymity.
According to an official in Dakoro, the gunmen were after an Italian national when they swooped on the village after dark.
"All the witness accounts concur: the kidnappers -- there were 11 of them -- headed straight to the house where the Italian should have spent the night on Sunday. As soon as they entered, they asked the watchman in Arabic where the white man was," he said.
The official said the watchman told the gunmen that the Italian man was not there and had planned to camp out in the bush with Bororo Fulani tribesmen.
He described the Italian man targeted by the kidnappers as an anthropologist who had previously worked for Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres - MSF).
"Wearing djellabah (robes), bullet-proof jackets and turbans ... they started frantically searching the house," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"Since they weren't finding anything, they rushed to the house next door and found the aid workers and marched them out at gunpoint," he added.
He said the neighbourhood's watchmen and several residents had all provided the same account of the incident late Sunday.
The official added that the Italian man was transferred to a safe location in nearby Maradi, the west African country's economic capital.
Four of the six hostages, including a doctor and a nurse, are employed by the local aid group Befen, which fights against malnutrition, and the Chadian health group Alerte-Sante.
The two aid groups issued a fresh statement Tuesday calling for the release of the hostages, especially of one member of the team who is believed to have been wounded during the kidnapping.
"Befen is part of a network of medical aid groups in the region, including in Mali ... These groups' medical teams are ready to pick up the wounded wherever is needed," the statement said.
In September 2010, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the north African branch of Al-Qaeda, kidnapped seven people in Niger's desert region of Agadez, and four French hostages are still held.
Groups with ties to AQIM seized the entire northern half of Mali in March this year.
The Niger government however appeared to dismiss the idea of jihadist involvement in the kidnapping.
The UN Security Council on Friday urged west African countries to speed up preparations for a military intervention in northern Mali, which was seized by groups with links to AQIM in March.
Niger is expected to contribute troops to the regional force.
The crisis in Mali, which is effectively split in two, stems in part from the war in Libya last year which saw former Tuareg rebels who had served as Moamer Kadhafi's mercenaries return to their home countries flush with weapons.
They were mainly from Mali and Niger.