By Boureima Balima
NIAMEY (Reuters) – An Italian priest was kidnapped on Monday in south Niger, near the border with Burkina Faso, the second abduction of a European in the West African country this year.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the kidnapping, which was confirmed on Tuesday by the Nigerien and Italian governments.
West African states have been struggling to gain the upper hand over jihadist groups, including some affiliated with al Qaeda and Islamic State, which are active along Niger’s porous borders with both Mali and Burkina Faso.
The kidnapping took place in the village of Bomanga, in the southern Makalondi district, about 125 km (80 miles) from the capital Niamey.
In a statement on Tuesday, Niamey’s Archbishop Laurent Lompo said Father Pier Luigi Maccalli was attacked and abducted by “unidentified individuals” on Monday evening.
Maccalli had been working in Bomaga for 11 years as a member of the Society of African Missions (SMA), a Roman Catholic missionary organization.
Italy’s embassy in Niamey has called on the local authorities to resolve the matter as quickly as possible, the Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Western powers, primarily France but also the United States, have deployed thousands of troops in the semi-arid Sahel region to combat what they see as a growing Islamist militant threat that targets both civilians and the military.
In April, a German humanitarian worker was abducted by men riding motorcycles near Niger’s western border with Mali. Last October the Islamic State’s affiliate in West Africa claimed responsibility for an attack in Niger’s borderlands that killed four members of the U.S. special forces and at least four Nigerien soldiers.
“What is worrying us in particular is a bigger capacity of these terrorist groups to act, especially near the three borders,” said a French diplomatic source, referring to Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. France has some 4,500 troops in the area.
(additional reporting by Crispin Balmer in Rome, Sofia Christensen in Dakar and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Alessandra Prentice, William Maclean and Peter Graff)