A convoy of United States embassy staff has come under fire in southeast Nigeria, an attack that killed two employees and two police officers.
Gunmen also kidnapped three individuals – two other police officers and a driver – during the attack on Tuesday near the town of Atani in Nigeria’s Anambra State.
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A rescue and recovery effort remains under way, according to a police spokesperson in Anambra, Ikenga Tochukwu.
“The hoodlums murdered two of the Police Mobile Force operatives and two staff of the Consulate, and set their bodies ablaze and their vehicles,” Ikenga said, noting the area was known for separatist violence.
It is not immediately clear the nature of the trip by the US embassy staffers in Anambra, nor how many people were in the convoy.
Ikeng also expressed regret the convoy chose to “enter the state without recourse to the police in the area or any security agency”. Law enforcement, he said, arrived only after the attackers escaped.
In a statement on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US mission and its Nigerian counterparts were working to ascertain the location and condition of those unaccounted for. In all, there were nine Nigerian nationals in the convoy, he said.
The convoy was carrying five employees of the US mission to Nigeria and four members of the Nigeria Police Force. They were travelling in advance of a planned visit by US mission personnel to a US-funded flood response project in Anambra state, Blinken said.
“We condemn in the strongest terms this attack, Blinken said. “We will work closely with our Nigerian law enforcement colleagues in seeking to bring those responsible to justice.
US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby briefly addressed the incident at a White House press briefing on Tuesday, affirming “that no US citizens were involved and, therefore, there were no US citizens hurt”.
The US Department of State later issued a statement saying its diplomatic staff were “working with Nigerian security services to investigate”.
“The security of our personnel is always paramount, and we take extensive precautions when organising trips to the field,” it said.
The attack took place along a major roadway at about 3:30pm local time (14:30 GMT). Police in Anambra have indicated they believe separatists are responsible for the attack as part of an escalating campaign of violence.
Officials in the region often point to a separatist group called the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which has led a push to secede from Nigeria in favour of establishing its own republic.
In 2020, it formed a paramilitary organisation called the Eastern Security Network, ostensibly to protect local farmers and residents from crime — but Nigerian police have accused it of carrying out violent attacks.
IPOB has denied any involvement in the violence. However, tensions have risen since the arrest of the group’s founding leader Nnamdi Kanu, first in 2015 and again in 2021, after he had skipped bail and fled abroad for several years.
Kanu had faced charges of treason and terrorism, which he pleaded not guilty to. In October, an appellate court dropped the seven-count charge of terrorism against Kanu, saying the trial court lacked jurisdiction.
Separatists have long rallied for a referendum to be organised over the question of independence in southeast Nigeria. But such questions come with a fraught history: In 1967, the Republic of Biafra declared independence, launching a three-year-long civil war in Nigeria that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
More recently, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has rejected attempts to hold a referendum, calling the country’s unity non-negotiable. He is set to leave office at the end of this month after serving two four-year terms.
He will be succeeded by President-elect Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress.
The news of Tuesday’s convoy killings comes on the heels of an overnight attack late on Monday in the north-central state of Plateau, where village raids left an estimated 30 people dead and houses destroyed.
Plateau State Commissioner of Information and Communication Dan Manjang told the AFP news agency the raids had erupted from clashes between the predominantly Muslim herders and farmers in the region who are majority Christian.