An Italian priest has been kidnapped in a part of Niger where a number of extremist groups are active, the West African nation said on Tuesday.
Government spokesperson Zakaria Abdourahmane said authorities had not been aware the priest was in the country's southwest near the Burkina Faso border. He said investigations have begun to find the attackers and free the priest.
The Reverend Pierluigi Maccalli is a member of the Society of African Missions religious order. In Niger he had promoted initiatives to encourage an end to the cultural practice of female genital mutilation, which sparked some local opposition to him, according to the Fides missionary news agency in Rome.
The Italian foreign ministry said it had asked Nigerien authorities to give "absolute priority" to resolving the kidnapping but asked that they avoid "any initiative that could put Father Maccalli at risk."
"As far as we know an armed group entered in his apartment, taking several objects, including his computer. It seems that they took the mission's car and then they kidnapped the missionary," said the agency's Africa desk editor Luca Mainoldi.
Reports indicate the priest may have been taken to Burkina Faso, Mainoldi said. "If these people later found shelter in Burkina Faso this means that they are a transnational group of jihadist kind that operates between Niger, Burkina Faso and maybe Mali too."
Burkina Faso's border with Niger and Mali is home to extremists who kidnap and kill officials, sometimes in connection with other Islamic extremist groups in West Africa's vast Sahel region. Attacks have risen in the past year as young men frustrated by poverty become radicalised.
Niger for years has fought extremist groups linked to both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organisation. Recently it has experienced a rise in kidnappings with ransom demands.
Earlier this month in the Diffa region, a 70-year-old woman who was the mother of a national deputy was abducted by armed men on motorcycles. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of $35 000 but she was eventually released.
"We did not pay ransom, the kidnappers brought her back," said her son, Boulou Boukar.
Other abductions have been reported in the Maradi Region, which neighbours Nigeria's Zamfara state. A mixed patrol of Nigerien and Nigerian military has been set up for weeks along the border, according to Maradi governor Zakari Oumarou.
Nigeria's Defence Minister Mansur Mohammed Dan Ali has been in Niger for two days discussing with President Mahamadou Issoufou the insecurity along Niger's southern border with Nigeria, where Boko Haram is present.
"Our two heads of state have the same vision and we will continue to pool our resources in order to fight the resilience of Boko Haram," Ali said.
* Sign up to News24's top Africa news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO THE HELLO AFRICA NEWSLETTER