NIAMEY, NIGER - An Italian priest has been kidnapped in a part of Niger where a number of extremist groups are active, the West African nation said Tuesday.
Government spokesman Zakaria Abdourahmane said authorities had not been aware the priest was in the country's southwest near the Burkina Faso border. He said investigations have begun to find the attackers and free the priest. No further details were immediately available.
The Rev. Pierluigi Maccalli is a member of the Society of African Missions religious order. In Niger he had promoted initiatives to encourage an end to the cultural practice of female genital mutilation, which had sparked some local opposition to him, according to the Fides missionary news agency in Rome.
In Rome, the Italian foreign ministry said it had asked local authorities in Niger's capital, Niamey, to give 'absolute priority' to resolving the kidnapping but asked that they avoid 'any initiative that could put Father Maccalli at risk.'
Burkina Faso's border with Niger and Mali is home to extremists who kidnap and kill officials, sometimes in connection with other Islamic extremist groups in West Africa's vast Sahel region. Attacks have risen in the past year as young men frustrated by poverty become radicalized.
Niger for years has fought extremist groups linked to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization. Recently it has experienced a rise in kidnappings with ransom demands.
Earlier this month in the Diffa region, a 70-year-old woman who was the mother of a national deputy was abducted by armed men on motorcycles. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of 20 million FCFA ($35,000) but she was eventually released.
'We did not pay ransom, the kidnappers brought her back,' said her son, Boulou Boukar.
Other abductions have been reported in the Maradi Region, which neighbors Nigeria's Zamfara state. A mixed patrol of Nigerien and Nigerian military has been set up for weeks along the border, according to Maradi governor Zakari Oumarou.
Nigeria's Defense Minister Mansur Mohammed Dan Ali has been in Niger for two days discussing with President Mahamadou Issoufou the insecurity along Niger's southern border with Nigeria, where Boko Haram is present.
'Our two heads of state have the same vision and we will continue to pool our resources in order to fight the resilience of Boko Haram,' Ali said after the meeting.