3 Spanish aid workers kidnapped in Mauritania, aid group and officials in Spain say

By Ahmed Mohammed, AP
Monday, November 30, 2009

Spain: 3 aid workers kidnapped in Mauritania

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Three Spanish volunteer aid workers were kidnapped by gunmen while delivering supplies to impoverished villages in the West African nation of Mauritania, their organization said Monday, and Spain’s interior minister said he suspected radical Islamists.

Two men and a woman were kidnapped, according to Julia Tabernejo, a spokeswoman for Barcelona-based aid group Barcelona Accion Solidaria, which does humanitarian work in several African countries. She gave their names as Albert Vilalta, Roque Pascual and Alicia Gamez. She said the two men, Vilalta and Pascual, are businessmen and are about 50 years old. She said Gamez is a civil servant in the court system.

Tabernejo said the three Spaniards — who were all volunteers — were in a 4-wheel drive vehicle at the very back end of the convoy.

“I think the others heard shooting, and when they stopped, the car was empty,” she said. “Those three were were no longer in it.”

A Spanish foreign ministry official said the aid workers were abducted Sunday while traveling in a convoy of 13 vehicles. The kidnapping occurred after two of the vehicles became separated from the convoy for unknown reasons, according to the official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with ministry rules.

A ministry statement said Mauritanian forces are now accompanying the rest of the convoy at Spain’s request.

Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told reporters on Monday that he feared the kidnapping was the work of Islamists, but he did not name a group or give further details.

“Call it is a suspicion, because that is all we have at this point, but I fear this is a kidnapping by Islamic radicals,” he said in Brussels as he entered a meeting with European Union officials.

Mauritania, once known as a predominantly moderate Muslim nation on Africa’s western coast, has been rocked by attacks by an al-Qaida-linked group.

In June, American Christopher Leggett, 39, was fatally shot in the Mauritanian capital, not far from a school that he helped run. The North African al-Qaida group claimed responsibility, saying they killed the Tennessee native because he allegedly was trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

In 2007, gunmen in Mauritania killed four French tourists that were picnicking on the side of a highway. In 2008, the world famous Dakar Rally auto race was canceled after organizer’s received threats of a possible attack.

The aid workers were attacked while delivering supplies to villages along a 240-mile (400-kilometer) road that links the capital, Nouakchott, to Nouadhibou to the north, a Mauritanian police official said. He asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“The Spaniards were inside their car traveling in the humanitarian convoy which had gone to distribute humanitarian aid to the poorest of the poor of Nouadhibou when the unknown gunmen started shooting at them before kidnapping them,” said the official, a top police officer in the capital.

Associated Press Writer Daniel Woolls in Madrid contributed to this report.

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