BAMAKO - A leading Islamist militant group has kidnapped a team of Red Cross workers in northern Mali who had been reported missing, an official from the jihadist group said on Tuesday.
The members of the International Committee of the Red Cross team "are alive and in good health" in the hands of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a MUJAO official said told AFP when contacted by telephone from the capital Bamako.
MUJAO is one of the groups allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which occupied the north of Mali in 2012 before they were partly driven from the region by a French-led military intervention launched in January last year.
"Thanks to God we seized a 4X4 (vehicle) of the enemies of Islam with their accomplices," MUJAO official Yoro Abdoulsalam said, confirming it was the ICRC team reported missing in recent days.
He gave no other details.
ICRC spokesman Alexis Heeb told AFP Monday that four ICRC staff members and a veterinarian from another aid organisation went missing Saturday along with their vehicle on the road between the towns of Kidal and Gao.
All five individuals are Malian citizens.
"At this stage we're exploring all possibilities. We're extremely worried and we're contacting everyone to try to localise them," Heeb said at the time.
Christoph Luedi, head of the ICRC Mali delegation, said in a statement that the group "were on the way from Kidal to their base in Gao".
For security reasons, ICRC teams make regular contact every few hours with their base when they are on mission, and the team had done so for part of its journey.
ICRC operations in Mali range from visiting people detained during the country's conflict to providing aid to the hundreds of thousands of people who were driven from their homes by fighting.
Mali descended into chaos when Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups took over the north after a military coup in March 2012 far to the south in the capital Bamako.
The Islamists later routed the Tuareg who made a comeback following the French intervention.
The humanitarian crisis sparked by the conflict came on top of years of drought in the Sahel region that have left 800,000 Malians relying on food aid.
The Islamists started an advance on Bamako that led to a military intervention by former colonial power France in January 2013.
Fears MUJAO returning to Gao
French troops pushed the Al-Qaeda-linked militants out of northern towns early last year and have kept up operations against residual groups of insurgents.
France is winding down its force from a peak of around 5,000 soldiers but is to keep 1,000 troops in Mali beyond the spring.
The UN peacekeepers took over security in July last year from a pan-African military mission which had been supporting the French troops.
The UN mission played a key security role in presidential polls last year which saw former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita become the country's first democratically elected leader since the 2012 coup.
Malian security and other officials were not immediately available for comment about the latest developments.
The kidnapping claim comes against the backdrop of tensions in the Gao region, where several residents said the MUJAO is returning to the scene.
A regional Malian official said that on Monday dozens of armed men believed to be MUJAO members burst into the community of Djebock, about 50 kilometres from Gao.
They were looking for a Tuareg leader who was absent when they entered the community and ended up leaving emptyhanded, the official said.