By Daud Yussuf
GARISSA, Kenya, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Heavily-armed Somali gunmen kidnapped two Italian nuns on Monday in a pre-dawn raid on a remote Kenyan border town, witnesses said.
Somalia is one of the world's most dangerous countries for aid workers, who are often abducted or killed in attacks usually blamed on Islamist insurgents or clan militia.
Cross-border raids are common in the remote, arid region, but usually involve cattle rustlers or criminal gangs targeting business people in both countries.
One local aid worker said at least 60 kidnappers entered the small town of El Wak at about 1 a.m. (2200 GMT Sunday), hurling a grenade and then firing a rocket at a Kenyan police post.
The abducted nuns' missionary group, the Movimento Contemplativo Missionario Padre de Foucauld, named them as 67-year-old Caterina Giraudo, and Maria Teresa Olivero, 60.
Italy's Foreign Ministry said it was providing "every possible form of cooperation with local authorities".
Chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told Reuters that Pope Benedict had been informed of the kidnapping and was praying for the abducted nuns. Lombardi expressed hope for their quick release "without harm, suffering".
The Kenyan Red Cross Society said the gunmen had later escaped in three hijacked vehicles, and that it was feared they had taken their captives back across the border.
Sheikh Hassan Hussein, chairman of Somalia's neighbouring Gedo Region, said he did not know where the kidnappers had gone or who exactly they were, but he described them as "Somali bandits".
"FLUSHED TOWN WITH BULLETS"
Suspicion for such attacks normally falls on Islamist extremists or clan militia, but rebel leaders have said government hardliners are behind the killings to discredit them and stir the international community to intervene.
The abduction came just days after Kenya's army ended an operation to seize illegal firearms in the area. There was no immediate comment from the Kenyan authorities about the raid, which involved many fighters and appeared to be well-planned.
"This wasn't about a simple extortion for money or something similar," said Pino Isoardi of the Italian missionary group.
He told Reuters neither nun had notable health problems, and he said no one were hurt during the abduction. His group has worked in the area since 1983, treating sick children as well as adults suffering from tuberculosis and malnourishment.
Isoardi said nothing was stolen in the raid, but a senior local official, District Commissioner Ole Tuti, said the attackers also seized phones, computers and cash from locals.
"The bandits used heavy weapons fixed to the top of vehicles and they flushed the town with bullets," Tuti told Reuters.
In the last recent attack on humanitarian staff in lawless Somalia, gunmen in Jamame, north of rebel-held Kismayu port, assassinated a Somali man on Sunday who had been running the local office of the U.S.-based Mercy Corps charity.
Gunmen also stormed an airstrip last week in central Somalia, kidnapping four European aid workers and two Kenyan pilots. Locals said those hostages were taken to Mogadishu.
(Additional reporting by Somalia team and Phil Stewart in Rome; Writing by Daniel Wallis)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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