A twist has emerged in the controversy surrounding the status of the seven foreign construction workers kidnapped last month by the militant Islamist sect, Jama’atu Ansarul Musilimina Fi Biladis Sudan, known as Ansaru in short.
While the Ansaru sect has claimed that they have killed the seven hostages and released photos showing dead bodies and their governments having corroborated the claim, Nigeria’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Abba Moro has said that the hostages may be alive.
He made this claim while speaking to the Hausa service of the British Broadcasting Commission (BBC), saying that efforts to ensure their rescue and security would continue to be underway until their killing becomes confirmed.
“I want us to also think that belief is quite different from confirmation. And maybe the affected countries believe that was what happened, but on its part, the country where it is said to have happened, based on what it sees, is doing the best it can in ensuring the men are freed, who it hopes are alive,” he said.
His belief and comments by his Information counterpart , Labaran Maku, as well as security agencies showed that there was confusion in government circle over the fate of the kidnapped foreigners.
Shortly before the Interior Minister spoke, Ansaru, in order to prove its claim, posted a video dated March 9 shows a gunman standing next to a pile of bodies, then close-ups of their faces lit up by a torch of what it said was the bodies of the foreigners ( a Briton, an Italian, a Greek and four Lebanese) on the Internet.
It carries the Arabic title, “The killing of the seven Christian hostages in Nigeria” although the religion of the deceased was not clear.
A caption underneath the video says in Arabic and in English: “In the name of Allah Most Beneficent Most Merciful.”
The Ansaru sect had said that it killed the hostages in response to attempts by Britain and Nigeria to rescue them, even though Italy and Greece said there was no such rescue attempt.
A presidential aide also contradicted the claims of Ansaru, telling the Guardian of London that no rescue attempt was underway or in the pipeline with any governments.
“The (Nigerian) government had zero indication of where the hostages were being held. We would have mounted a raid if we had known,” the aide said.
He added that the speed at which events had unfolded over the last few days “caught (the government) on the back foot.”
Two security sources told the Guardian the hostages might have been killed when their captors panicked, mistakenly believing British intelligence operatives based in Nigeria had located them.
A secret service official said that three of the hostages were believed to have been seriously ill during their captivity.
While the United Kingdom, Italy and Greece have released official statements confirming the killings, no comment has been received from the Federal Government.
Efforts to get the Presidency’s reaction yielded no positive result as the telephone lines of the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, was switched off.
It was later learnt on Monday that Abati was out of the country.
Also, the Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, Dr. Doyin Okupe, did not pick his call when one of our correspondents tried to reach him on Sunday.
The spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Mr. Ogbole Ahmedu-Ode, had said he had not been briefed and therefore could not make any comment on the reported killings.
The Information minister declined to make comments on the fate of the seven hostages when confronted by journalists in Abuja on Monday.
I don’t have the full brief to brief you,” Maku said as he walked out of the Presidential Villa, Abuja where he had earlier attended a meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan.
When he was further asked to comment on the listing of Nigeria as a terrorist state by France over the incident, the minister kept mum.
When one of our correspondents contacted the Director of Defence Information, Col. Mohammed Yerima, on Monday , he asked, “How can we confirm? There is nothing to confirm. We don’t have comment. We are saying we do not have comment.”
Also, the Bauchi State Police Command said it had no clue on the condition of the seven foreigners said to be Setraco workers.
The command said it had yet to establish the alleged murder of the foreigners who were abducted from their camp in Jama’are, Bauchi State on February 17, 2013 by JAMBS members.
The state Police Public Relations Officer, Hassan Mohammed, told one of our correspondents on Monday that the command had no evidence that the hostages had been killed.
“We don’t have any information on the hostages’ death; honestly I can’t tell you anything about it because I don’t know, we are still investigating the claims by the sect. But for now, we don’t know the situation of things,” he said.
It was gathered that security agencies were still combing Bauchi and the neighbouring states for the abducted Setraco workers.
Ansaru killed a British and an Italian hostage in North-West Nigeria during a failed rescue mission by British and Nigerian forces a year ago.
A German kidnapped by an Islamist group in January 2012 was also killed later in the year during a raid on his location.
A French national is being also held by the group, while another family of seven kidnapped in northern Cameroon are being held by a group claiming to be Boko Haram.
Security officials say Ansaru split from Boko Haram in January 2012, after the latter launched a devastating attack on the city of Kano that killed 186 people, mostly Muslims.