Kidnapped aid workers in Nigeria may have just hours before being killed

Children sit near their parents as they cook meals in one of the Internally Displaced People camps in Pulka, on Aug 1, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

ABUJA (NYTIMES) - Either of two aid workers kidnapped by a faction of the Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria may have only hours to be rescued before being executed, according to a fervent appeal by the aid organisations they work for.

Ms Hauwa Muhammed Liman, a 24-year-old midwife at a government healthcare centre supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Ms Alice Loksha, a nurse working for Unicef, were abducted along with another aid worker in March, when militants thought to belong to a Boko Haram faction stormed Rann, a north-eastern Nigerian town where there are tens of thousands of refugees.

The faction, the Islamic State West African Province, which is supported by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, has been responsible for high-profile abductions and propaganda victories, further complicating the security crisis from an insurgency entering its 10th year.

On Sept 16, another aid worker, Ms Saifura Khorsa, a 25-year-old nurse with the international Red Cross group, was executed by the faction. Ms Liman and Ms Loksha remain captives, as does Ms Leah Sharibu, a Christian student who refused to convert to Islam and was seized in February.

After Ms Khorsa was killed, the militants said the aid groups had one month to meet their demands before another worker would be killed, according to the Red Cross committee.

It is believed that the militants are holding the workers for ransom, but the Red Cross committee would not confirm that, and it does not pay to gain the release of kidnapped staff members, according to its officials.

It said it had worked with the Nigerian government to secure the captives' release.

In comments directed to both the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, Red Cross officials pleaded for urgent action.

"I'm appealing directly to the Islamic State in West African province," one of the officials, Mr Mamadou Sow, said in a videotaped statement, using another name for the ISIS group.

"Please show some mercy. Hauwa and Alice went to Rann to save lives, and they deserve to live."

The Boko Haram faction kidnapped more than 100 girls at a boarding school in Dapchi, a town in north-eastern Nigeria, in February.

The last several abductions were reminiscent of that of 2014, when more than 370 schoolgirls in Chibok were kidnapped, which set off pervasive fear and protests around the world.

A month after the kidnappings in Dapchi, the terrorist group returned most of the girls and told local residents to stop sending their female children to school.

The government denied paying a ransom, saying only that it had negotiated with the militants.

The March abductions of the three aid workers occurred when the militants attacked a military outpost in Rann, in Borno state, that is sheltering at least 80,000 Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram's insurgency.

Dozens of people were killed, along with three United Nations staff.

The events have raised security concerns among aid organisations, which have reduced the number of staff working in areas that have become more vulnerable.

Their fears contrast with the stance of the Nigerian government led by President Muhammadu Buhari, who continues to insist, before elections scheduled for February, that the region is growing safer.

Ms Aleksandra Mosinann, a Red Cross committee spokesman, said the need for humanitarian aid in the region remained acute.

"Borno state has 700 healthcare facilities, but nearly 400 are not functional," she said in a telephone interview.

"Those still open are overwhelmed. We are concerned that many people in the region will not have access to medical support if the region becomes too dangerous for staff to operate."

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