Gunmen firing automatic weapons dragged two Italian Roman Catholic nuns from their home in rural Kenya on Monday and drove them into lawless Somalia in a rare cross-border attack, officials said.
The nuns, who are in their 60s, were working on hunger programs in the northeastern town of El Wak, about six miles (10 kilometers) from the Somali border. The kidnapping highlights concerns among regional security officials that chaos in Somalia could lead to troubles in neighboring Kenya, which is struggling to patrol the long and porous border.
The early morning abduction began when six gunmen firing automatic weapons hurled a hand grenade and fired a rocket at Kenyan police, said Aden Mohamed Isaqm, a local aid worker. The gunmen then seized the nuns and drove them to the border in three stolen vehicles.
"I have seen two expatriates in a car with militia surrounding them," said witness Shacban Mohamed Ali. "The two foreigners were very shocked."
The desert border is hundreds of miles long and crossed by thousands of Somali refugees every month. American troops are training the Kenyan security forces in an effort to prevent extremists from crossing into the country.
Border region plagued by banditry
Both sides of the arid border region are plagued by banditry and clashes among ethnic groups fighting for grazing and water rights. A recent drought has heightened tensions in an area awash with weapons smuggled from Somalia into Kenya.
The nuns, Maria Teresa Olevero and Catarina Giraudo, had been working in Kenya for decades and were among the few non-Muslims in town, the Catholic Information Service said. They ran a small dispensary and offered medical care to malnourished children.
The Italian Foreign Ministry said its crisis unit was working to secure the nuns' freedom.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since clan-based warlords overthrew a socialist dictator in 1991, plunging the nation into chaos. For the past two years, a bloody Islamic insurgency has killed thousands of people, most of them civilians caught in the crossfire.
The current government is supported by Ethiopian troops, who ousted the Islamists from the capital and much of the south in December 2006.
The Catholic church has been the target of several attacks in Somalia, parts of which were once colonized by Italy.
In 2005, insurgents dug up remains in an Italian cemetery where around 3,000 people were buried, and threw them into the sea. The following year an Italian nun working in a hospital in the capital was shot dead. Earlier this year, residents of the southern town of Kismayo began destroying an abandoned Catholic church after the town was taken over by Islamic extremists.