Niamey - Gunmen who kidnapped five African aid workers and a driver in Niger at the weekend had planned to abduct an Italian national, a local official told AFP on Tuesday.
"All the witness accounts concur: the kidnappers - there were 11 of them - headed straight to the house where the Italian should have spent the night on Sunday. As soon as they entered, they asked the watchman in Arabic where the white man was," he said.
The official said the watchman told the gunmen that the Italian man was not there and had planned to camp out in the bush with Bororo Fulani tribesmen.
He described the Italian man targeted by the kidnappers as an anthropologist who had previously worked for Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres - MSF).
"Wearing djellabah [robes], bullet-proof jackets and turbans... they started frantically searching the house," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"Since they weren't finding anything, they rushed to the house next door and found the aid workers and marched them out at gunpoint," he added.
He said the neighbourhood's watchmen and several residents had all provided the same account of the incident late on Sunday.
The official added that the Italian man was transferred to a safe location in nearby Maradi, the west African country's economic capital.
The six abducted on Sunday were five aid workers - four from Niger and one from Chad - as well as a Nigerien driver.
Four of the six hostages, including a doctor and a nurse, are employed by the local aid group Befen, which fights against malnutrition, and the Chadian health group Alerte-sante.
In September 2010, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), the north African branch of al-Qaeda, kidnapped seven people in Niger's desert region of Agadez, and four French hostages are still held.
The area in southern Niger where the six were snatched is near the border with Nigeria, where the Boko Haram Islamist group has been carrying out deadly attacks, and not far from Islamist-controlled northern Mali.
The Niger government however appeared to dismiss the idea of jihadist involvement in the kidnapping and vowed Monday to spare no effort in securing the hostages' release.
The UN Security Council on Friday urged west African countries to speed up preparations for a military intervention in northern Mali, which was seized by groups with links to Aqim in March.
Niger is expected to contribute troops to the regional force.
The crisis in Mali, which is effectively split in two, stems in part from the war in Libya last year which saw former Tuareg rebels who had served as Muammar Gaddafi’s mercenaries return to their home countries flush with weapons.
They were mainly from Mali and Niger.