Nigeria says Briton, Italian killed before rescue

March 14, 2012 - 3:26 PM
Italy NIgeria Hostages

People and relatives follow the casket of Franco Lamolinara prior to his funeral in the northern Italian town of Gattinara, Monday, March 12, 2012. Lamolinara, an engineer who was working in Nigeria when he was kidnapped along with a British colleague in May, was slain during a botched British-Nigerian rescue attempt. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca)

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — The Briton and Italian kidnapped in Nigeria were abducted by a splinter cell of a radical Islamist sect and executed before a failed commando rescue operation, the nation's secret police said Wednesday.

Nigeria's secretive State Security Service also said the mastermind of the kidnapping by members of a sect known as Boko Haram died in their custody after suffering gunshot wounds during his arrest before the raid.

The statement by the secret police Wednesday comes nearly a week after the failed rescue operation March 8 by British and Nigerian commandos in Nigeria's northwest city of Sokoto. It also appears to try to absolve Nigerian authorities of any responsibility over the deaths of Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara, who had been kidnapped in May 2011 and held for months before their execution.

"While the service commiserates with the families of the murdered expatriates, it wishes to reiterate that the long arm of the law will surely catch up with terrorists and perpetrators of evil wherever they are," read the statement by the secret police, which has been unable to stop the growing violence surging across Nigeria's Muslim north.

British officials also have blamed a splinter wing of the Boko Haram sect for the abductions, but a sect spokesman has denied the group's involvement.

McManus was working for the construction company B.Stabilini when he was kidnapped May 12 by gunmen who stormed his apartment in the city of Birnin-Kebbi, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) away from Sokoto. Lamolinara also was abducted. A German colleague managed to escape by scaling a wall, but a Nigerian engineer was shot and wounded.

A video released later showed the kidnappers claiming they belonged to al-Qaida and threatening to kill McManus and Lamolinara if their demands were not met. British officials worked for months trying to track down the men as rumors floated that they had been taken out of the country.

In its statement, the State Security Service said three young men watched the McManus before the abduction. Information gathered led security forces to a house in Zaria in central Kaduna state on March 7, where forces shot and wounded Abu Mohammed, the mastermind of the kidnapping, the secret police said.

A soldier was killed in that operation and apparently one sect member escaped, the service said. Another sect member led authorities to the Mabera neighborhood of Sokoto, where the hostages were being held, the secret police said.

However, the statement said it was too late to save the hostages.

"Apparently acting on the directive of the member of the sect who escaped from Zaria, the guards murdered the hostages before the arrival of security forces," the statement read.

It remains unclear whether the men were executed the way described by the secret police, an organization which has issued statements in the past to absolve itself of operational failures.

The service also said Mohammed died in custody from his wounds. Police and military officials often carry out so-called "extrajudicial killings" of prisoners.

On Wednesday afternoon, the secret police showed a group of journalists gathered at its headquarters in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, eight suspects they arrested in connection with the kidnapping. The police alleged that three served as the kidnappers' surveillance team, while the others took part in either the abduction or guarding the hostages.

The men stood quietly as they appeared before journalists. Some bore brusies or bandages on their faces. The secret police did not comment on how the men suffered the injuries. It was unclear if the suspects had lawyers.

Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north, is blamed for killing more than 340 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.

The commando raid has strained Britain's relations with Italy, though Britain's defense minister said Tuesday the diplomatic dispute had been settled between the two nations.