Mauritanian authorities have launched an operation to find three Spanish aid workers kidnapped by armed gunmen. Sunday's abduction was the latest in a string of attacks on foreign aid workers and tourists in the West African country.
Albert Vilalta, Roque Pascual, and Alicia Gamez were kidnapped by armed men on Sunday, 150 kilometers north of Mauritania's capital Nouakchott. The Spanish aid workers were in Mauritania with the aid group Barcelona Accion Solidaria.
Spain's ambassador to Mauritania Alonso Dezcallar y Mazarredo says Mauritanian authorities are using every possible means to locate the Spanish citizens.
Ambassador Mazarredo says the response of the Mauritanian authorities has been immediate, active and positive. He says together they are using every means to try to find the Spanish citizens.
He said other members of Barcelona Accion Solidaria will travel with military guards for the rest of their stay in Mauritania. The group has been working in a desert region in the north delivering aid to impoverished villages.
From the moment he found out about the kidnapping, Mazzaredo says he contacted Mauritanian authorities and assured them the rest of the members of the aid group will be protected while they are in the field.
The aid workers were traveling in a convoy of 12 vehicles when they were abducted by armed men who fired at their vehicle.
Richard Barrett is from the U.N. al-Qaida monitoring team. He says that while attacks by al-Qaida and its operatives are decreasing in many parts of the world, the situation is worsening in North Africa.
"The situation has got worse for countries like Mauritania, it may get worse for countries like Mali. In Mauritania there have been several attacks, if you go back there was an attack on the Israeli embassy there, an attack on government troops, troops have been killed, there were some French tourists who were killed," he said.
In 2007, Four French tourists were killed as they picnicked by the side of a desert road, and a British hostage was beheaded after being kidnapped in Mali. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility.
In June, American Christopher Leggett was shot dead in Nouakchott. He was running a school there, with the backing of the American Christian aid group, Operation Blessing. Again, al-Qaida claimed responsibility.
Richard Barrett says al-Qaida is increasingly using local groups to take hostages.
"Their ambitions remain, even if their capabilities perhaps are a little bit less at the moment, but their ambitions will remain for the foreseeable future and their capabilities may well increase," said Barrett. "And clearly what they are trying to do is to get people who can easily infiltrate into western countries and plot attacks or even do them on their own," he said.
Barrett says it is difficult to track al-Qaida's movements in countries like Mali and Mauritania, which have porous desert borders. He says the traditional approach of placing suspects on a list and following their movements does not always work.
"When an individual is placed on the list, their assets and bank accounts are frozen and their access to arms and any military training should cease as well. Clearly that is a little theoretical if you are listing somebody who is in a lawless area of the world," said Barrett.
Aid is key to Mauritania, which is being hit hard by the effects of climate change. The desert nation is also popular with adventurous tourists, who come for its sand dunes and birdwatching.
But the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Mauritania, Paul Clammer, says reports of terrorism are driving away tourists.
"Several places that I went to for the book, towns in the Ajar region which is the main tourist area - it is a very spectacular desert region and you can do camel trekking and take four wheel drives into the dunes - and it was just dead," he said. "Talking to local guides, nobody has really got any work. The whole economy was dependent," he added.
In 2008, the world famous Dakar Rally car race was canceled amid fears of attacks on participants. The route traditionally runs through Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal, but this year's rally took place in Argentina.
As the rescue mission continues, Barcelona Accion Solidaria is set to continue its work without the three kidnapped workers. The convoy will travel to Senegal and The Gambia this week under military escort.