Suspected Somali militants entered the world's largest refugee camp Thursday and abducted two Spanish women working with an aid group after shooting and wounding their Kenyan driver — the third kidnapping of Europeans in Kenya in six weeks.
Police pursued the gunmen by land and air, just as they had done following a nighttime kidnapping of a French woman from an island resort earlier this month. In September, a British woman was abducted — and her husband was shot to death — at a coastal resort.
The kidnappings by armed Somalis underscore the ease with which militants can cross into Kenya, take hostages and return to a land where power is determined by AK-47s and bandoliers of ammunition.
The police expressed confidence in capturing the gunmen even though the last two kidnappings saw the female captives taken into Somalia.
Regional police chief Leo Nyongesa said he believes the attackers came from Somalia because that was the direction they fled after Thursday's abduction from the Dadaab refugee camp, about 50 miles from the Somalia-Kenya border.
"We are following them by the road and air. We have closed the borders. We are tracking them down," Nyongesa said.
Closing the border, however, is impossible. The frontier is marked by a poorly manned border crossing and wide expanses of wilderness on either side of the road, which allows militants — and Kenya's military at times — to cross with ease.
The world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab would qualify as Kenya's third-most populous city and has become a mini-Somali state.
Tens of thousands of new Somalis have flooded Dadaab in the last three months to escape famine. The camp holds nearly a half-million Somalis, some of them third-generation refugees.
Kenyan officials have won international praise for accepting so many refugees fleeing hunger and war, but those who live near Dadaab complain that the Somali population increases insecurity.
The gunmen hijacked the vehicle in which the aid workers for Doctors Without Borders were riding and shot their driver in the neck, according to Baijo Mohamed, a youth leader in the Dadaab refuge camp.
A statement from the aid group gave few details but said the injured driver was hospitalized in stable condition.
"Two international staff are missing. A crisis team has been set up to deal with this incident," the group said.
In Spain, a Foreign Ministry official confirmed that two Spanish women who do logistics for the group were abducted. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with ministry rules.
The attack could complicate the aid effort at Dadaab, even though aid workers already operate under security requirements. U.N. staff must have armed escorts and most aid workers must be inside secure compounds before nightfall.
"I am deeply, deeply shocked and saddened. This is unacceptable," said Adan Keynan, chairman of the Kenyan parliament's defense and foreign relations committee. "This is a barbaric action, and the people of responsible nations must unite and fight this menace. This is an organized criminal gang who are hell-bent on causing fear and mayhem among people of Kenya."
After the successful kidnappings on Kenya's coast — abductions that have harmed the country's tourism sector — Internal Security Minister George Saitoti said "stringent measures" have been implemented to deter attacks along the border.
But a Kenya-based security official said there had been indications of a pending attack in Dadaab. About two weeks ago, Somalis approached translators working for aid groups and asked about the nationalities of foreign staff, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Gunmen took the French woman from her home near the resort town of Lamu on Oct. 1. Kenyan authorities gave chase but said the militants escaped into Somalia. The government blamed the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab.
In early September, six gunmen believed to have been Somali pirates shot to death David Tebbutt, 58, and kidnapped his wife, Judith, at the exclusive Kiwayu Safari Village hotel north of Lamu on the coast near the Somali border. The British couple were staying at the resort, which consists of 18 cottages dotted along a white sand beach fringed with palms.