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Terrorist organization al-Shabab is suspected of kidnapping two Cuban doctors in an ambush that left a police bodyguard dead in Mandera, Kenya, authorities said.
Assel Herrera Correa, a specialist in general medicine, and Landy Rodriguez Hernandez, a surgeon, were taken early Friday morning while one their way to work at Mandera Hospital, the public health ministry in Cuba confirmed Friday.
The two doctors were traveling in a government vehicle with a police escort when two Toyota Probox cars blocked their way and opened fire, Kenyan police said.
The suspects shot and killed an Administration Police Service officer before commandeering the vehicle and taking the doctors across the border into Somalia.
The driver of the government vehicle has been detained for interrogation, Kenyan police said.
“It is still suspected that the al-Shabab militants are the ones behind the attack," David Ohito, chief of staff for Mandera's governor, told NBC News Friday. “This place just borders Bula Hawo township in Somalia, under the strong influence of al-Shabab militants for a long time.”
Correa and Hernandez, who arrived in Mandera last summer, were popular doctors in the community due to their ability to offer rare treatments and surgeries to patients who traveled from across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia for care, according to Ohito. Mandera is located in the northwest region of Kenya near the borders of Somalia and Ethiopia.
The two doctors were featured in a piece on Kenya CitizenTV last year where they discussed potential safety concerns that came with their work in the area. Correa said at the time he had positive experiences working in other countries where the conditions were harsh, such as Venezuela.
Hernandez expressed some anxiety about attacks in the area.
“My reaction was bad because when I checked on the internet of Mandera county, the internet said Mandera county is a dangerous county for people,” Hernandez said in the video.
At least 100 Cuban doctors have been brought to Kenya in an exchange program that saw about 50 Kenyans travel to Cuba for specialized training last year.
Ohito said the extremist group has not claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, though authorities believe the terror organization had a hand in the kidnapping.
Al-Shabab was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2008 by the U.S. State Department. The department called al-Shabab a brutal and violent extremist group.
"Al-Shabab has used intimidation and violence to undermine the Somali government and threatened civil society activists working to bring about peace through political dialogue and reconciliation," the department said in a March 2008 release.
The organization was behind the attack on an upscale hotel and office complex in Nairobi in January that killed 14 people.
In November an Italian volunteer, Silvia Romano, was kidnapped in southern Kenya’s coastal region by gunmen linked to al-Shabab. She has not been found.
Kidnapping for ransom was a frequent al-Shabab activity before 2011. That’s when Kenya sent troops into Somalia to fight the extremists who had kidnapped four Europeans that year. Kenya said the abductions threatened tourism, a key pillar of the economy.
Kenyan troops are now part of the multinational African Union force bolstering Somalia’s weak government against al-Shabab. The extremist group has vowed retribution on Kenya for its troop presence in Somalia.
Monica Juma, the cabinet secretary for foreign affairs in Kenya, tweeted about the "evil machinations of international criminal networks" on Friday.
"Security agencies are engaged in the search and rescue mission to ensure safe return. We (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs @ForeignOfficeKE) are also in contact with the Government of Cuba," Juma said.