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By Daud Yussuf
GARISSA, Kenya |
Thu Oct 13, 2011 3:59pm EDT
GARISSA, Kenya (Reuters) - Gunmen were on the run with two Spanish aid workers kidnapped on Thursday from Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp, the third abduction of Westerners in Kenya by attackers linked to Somalia in a month.
Kenyan and Somali security forces were hunting for the kidnappers along the border between the two countries, which has been sealed off.
Police said they suspected Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgents were behind the kidnapping of the two women who work for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
A senior al Shabaab official, who did not want to be named, dismissed the claims. "We heard about the MSF abductions but we were not behind it," the official in southern Somalia told Reuters by telephone.
"Nor have they been brought into any area under our control," he said. Al Shabaab governs large parts of southern and central Somalia, including areas close to the border with Kenya.
MSF said it had been unable to contact the two hostages and said it would not reveal their names until their families had been informed.
A local Kenyan intelligence source said security forces were investigating reports a pastoralist had stumbled across the vehicle of the women abandoned between Dadaab and the frontier.
Somali lawmaker Abdi Bule Hussein who hails from the Lower Juba border area said he too had heard the vehicle had been ditched.
Heavy rain lashed the semi-arid region on Thursday, making driving treacherous on the sandy tracks that criss-cross the area and hampering the rescue operation.
"We strongly condemn this attack," José Antonio Bastos, the president of MSF-Spain, said in a statement. "MSF is in contact with all the relevant authorities and is doing all it can to ensure the swift and safe return of our colleagues."
A spokesman at the Spanish Foreign Ministry confirmed the missing women were Spanish.
Aid workers have been targeted for abductions on numerous occasions in Somalia, where kidnappings can be a lucrative business, but attacks in Kenya had been relatively rare until a recent spate of incidents.
In 2009, three foreign aid workers working for the French charity Action Contre la Faim (ACF) were nabbed by Somali gunmen from the Kenyan border town of Mandera. Two Western nuns were kidnapped in 2008.
Thursday's incident took place within weeks of two separate incidents when Somali gunmen with close ties to pirates seized Western female tourists from beach resorts in northern Kenya.
Analysts and diplomats in the region had warned that pirates were likely to turn to softer targets, such as tourists in Kenya, in response to much more robust defense of merchant vessels by private security guards.
Security experts fear Islamist militants fighting to topple the Western-backed Somali government could increasingly conduct copycat attacks inside Kenya, the region's biggest economy.
A Kenyan driver working for the international relief group Care is still missing after he was grabbed in September from the Dadaab camp.
SCOURING THE BORDER
Kenya's security forces acknowledged they did not know whether the abductors and their Spanish captives had crossed into Somalia.
"We've mobilized all the officers and alerted those at the border to ensure that no vehicle exits the country to Somalia. The whole border area is now sealed," North Eastern Province police commander Leo Nyongesa told Reuters.
Dadaab, located about 100 km for the Somali border, was set up in 1991 to house Somalis fleeing violence in their country. The camp's population has swollen to more than 460,000 people this year because of famine in Somalia.
"This is disturbing and a setback," said the U.N. refugee agency's chief spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.
The kidnapping will put further pressure on the Kenyan government to beef up defenses along its porous frontier and risks further hurting the tourism sector, one of the country's top foreign currency earners.
Britain has already issued a travel advisory warning against all but essential travel within 150 km of the Somali border, which includes the popular Lamu archipelago where a French woman and a British woman were seized in past weeks.
(Additional reporting by Nour Ali in Isiolo; Yara Bayoumy, Humphrey Malalo and Richard Lough in Nairobi, Feisal Omar and Mohamed Ahmed in Mogadishu,; Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Cristina Fuentes-Cantillana in Madrid and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Richad Lough)
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