Nigerian police have arrested 14 suspects in connection with the abduction of four British nationals serving as missionaries and medics in the southern part of the country.
The Britons, including former GP David Donovan and his wife Shirley, were abducted on Oct. 13 in Delta state, where they have been providing free medical treatment.
Zanna Ibrahim, Delta's police commissioner, said that the prime suspects behind the abduction were a group known as Karowei, adding that the crime may have been in response to a recent government effort to tackle militancy called "Operation Crocodile Smile."
Earlier reports indicated that four suspects were arrested in connection with the kidnapping, but 14 suspects were later presented to local media, including five accused of being involved in the abduction of the missionaries.
The kidnapped missionaries work with a British charity that describes its aim as "to train, resource and remunerate local workers, and to partner with government and other NGO's in work that is driven and underpinned through a faith in Jesus Christ."
The police commissioner alleged that the leader of the Karowei gang was behind the abduction of Ekpongbolo Preyor, a member of the Delta state assembly who was later released.
Chief Theo Fakama, from the local Enukorowa community, said that the villagers were dismayed over the abduction because the missionaries had "brought succour to residents of the community for the past three years."
Much of the missionary work is done in the Delta's so-called "riverine" areas, which are only accessible by boat. Britain's Foreign Office warns against traveling to such areas because they lie mostly beyond the reach of the authorities and are known to be havens for militant groups.
A Western kidnap consultant with experience of southern Nigeria told The Telegraph that he was "surprised that these missionaries were there for as long as they were without an incident like this happening earlier."
"Around 50 per cent of all kidnappings worldwide are incidents where people have effectively sleepwalked into it," the consultant added.
The Telegraph noted that militant groups generally target oil workers based in nearby Port Harcourt for kidnappings, but other Westerners can also be considered as targets. Most of the abductions in the region are usually carried out for ransom and are resolved relatively quickly.
Rev. Dr. Christopher Udoh from the Christ Mandate Gospel Church International in Akwa State, which lies in the Delta region, told Premier that he is optimistic that the missionaries will be released.
The Donovans, who are both aged 57, have been operating in the region for 14 years, running Bible classes as well as four clinics that offer free medical treatment, including immunizations and natal classes.