Kano - A construction company has evacuated all of its staff from a northern Nigeria site after gunmen blasted into the facility and kidnapped seven foreigners, residents told AFP on Monday.
Police in Bauchi state, where the attack occured late on Saturday, said their top priority was securing the release of the hostages, who reportedly include four Lebanese, one Briton, a Greek citizen and an Italian.
The raid on the compound of the Lebanese-owned firm Setraco was one of the worst attacks targeting expatriates in northern Nigeria in recent years and may indicate a changing strategy by the radical Islamic groups in the region.
Boko Haram Islamists, who are blamed for hundreds of deaths since 2009, have repeatedly attacked Bauchi, but have never acknowledged abducting a Westerner.
A group seen as an offshoot of Boko Haram, Ansaru, claimed the kidnapping of a French national in December and some analysts fear this splinter faction has prioritised foreign hostages, like other al-Qaeda-linked groups in North Africa.
The kidnapping of expatriates have typically occurred in Nigeria's oil-rich south, with the hostages released following a ransom payment.
Residents in the town of Jama'are, about 200km from the state capital, said 12 vehicles arrived at the Setraco facility on Sunday and evacuated all the staff, excluding those native to the town.
It was not immediately clear how many of the remaining workers were foreign and an official at Setraco's office in Nigeria's capital declined to comment, also refusing to provide contacts for the company spokesperson.
"Now all the company employees, who are not from Jama'are have left. Soldiers and policemen are conducting patrols in the town," said resident Haruna Garba.
The assailants stormed a police station and a prison in Jama'are before raiding the Setraco compound, police said.
When the kidnapping operation began the assailants struggled to gain access to the site, then shot dead a security guard and used explosives to blast a hole through the rear gate, residents and police said.
"There was a gaping hole... because the kidnappers used explosives to blow up the rear when the occupants refused to open the gate," said Sale Nagaidam, who visited the site on Sunday and witnessed the heavy security deployment.
Bauchi's police spokesperson Hassan Auyo told AFP on Monday that it was too early to speculate on who was behind the attacks.
"Our main priority now is to secure the release of the hostages," he said, adding that a manhunt had been launched.
Several residents said that Setraco had last year evacuated its foreign staff from the Jama'are site following a rise in deadly attacks blamed on Boko Haram and that the expatriates returned to the region about four months ago.
No claim of responsibility
The governments of Greece and Italy have confirmed that their citizens were among those taken hostage.
Beirut has acknowledged that two Lebanese nationals were seized, but has not matched the police figure of four, while the British foreign office has said it is making "enquiries" before confirming that a Briton was abducted.
There was no claim of responsibility for the weekend violence, but attention will likely turn to the emerging group Ansaru, which said it kidnapped a French engineer in the northern state of Katsina late last year.
As a justification for the abduction, Ansaru cited France's backing for a military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali.
Little is yet known about Ansaru, although many suspect it emerged from a faction within Boko Haram.