Gunmen kidnap US woman missionary in central Nigeria: police

An undated file photo shows US missionary, Reverend Phyllis Sortor, 87, of the Free Methodist Church, who was kidnapped on February 24, 2015 by unknown gunmen in the village of Emiworo village in the Ajaokuta district of Kogi State in Central Nigeria
An undated file photo shows US missionary, Reverend Phyllis Sortor, 87, of the Free Methodist Church, who was kidnapped on February 24, 2015 by unknown gunmen in the village of Emiworo village in the Ajaokuta district of Kogi State in Central Nigeria.. -- PHOTO: AFP

LAGOS (AFP) - Masked gunmen in central Nigeria kidnapped an American woman doing missionary work, with ransom the suspected motive for the attack, police said Tuesday.

Kogi state police spokesman Sola Collins Adebayo said Phyllis Sortor "was whisked away at around 10:00 am (5pm Singapore time) Monday."

He said the attack took place in the Emiworo village where the missionary from the Free Methodist Church ran a community organisation within the premises of a school linked to her church.

The kidnappers were "unknown gunmen...(who) came into the school premises shooting sporadically to scare away people before taking (the hostage) away into the bush," Adebayo said.

"We are hopeful of finding her. Our suspicion is that she was picked up for ransom," the police spokesman said.

A statement on the Free Methodist Church's website contained similar details.

"The US Embassy has been notified, and the State Department and the FBI are working with local authorities to find and rescue her," the statement attributed to Bishop David Kendall said.

"We are calling on the US church to join together in prayer for Phyllis' safety and speedy release," he added.

Media in Sortor's native Washington state, on the US West Coast, reported that her stepson, Richard, attended a prayer service at Seattle Pacific University on Monday night.

"She believes in God, she's doing God's work," he was quoted as saying, describing the abduction as "surreal, just surreal".

Foreign nationals have often been kidnapped in Nigeria by local gangs who typically release hostages following a ransom payment.

Such abductions are especially common in the southern, oil-producing Niger Delta, where expatriates working with large oil companies have been a frequent target.

A number of foreigners have also been kidnapped in the north of the country, but those attacks claimed by Boko Haram or the linked Islamist group Ansaru are considered a different phenomenon, and not necessarily motivated by a desire for ransom.

A number of people seized by Nigerian Islamists have been killed by their captors, while others have died during botched rescue operations.

Boko Haram has been blamed for previous attacks in Kogi, including two raids targeting the same prison in 2012 and 2014.

But there was no indication that the Islamists were responsible for the missionary's abduction.