A British contractor executed in Nigeria may have died because his kidnappers mistakenly thought British military aircraft landing in the country to ferry troops to Mali were instead part of a rescue mission.
William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, on Sunday promised to work with Nigeria to “hold the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account”.
“It is with deep sadness that I must confirm that a British construction worker... is likely to have been killed at the hands of his captors, along with six other foreign nationals who we believe were also tragically murdered,” he said. “This was an act of cold-blooded murder, which I condemn in the strongest terms.”
Mr Vaughan was working for Setraco, a Lebanese road construction company with extensive operations across Nigeria, and was kidnapped from the firm’s compound in the town of Jama’ale in north-east Nigeria in February.
His kidnappers promised to execute all seven hostages if there was any attempt to rescue them.
Nigeria’s media wrongly reported that five British transport aeroplanes seen late last month at the international airport in Abuja, the capital, were in the country preparing to free the hostages.
They were in fact there to collect Nigerian troops who were being deployed to bolster the international offensive against Islamists in Mali, the Ministry of Defence said on Sunday. Britain is providing airlift capacity to help the French-led mission there.
Ansaru released a statement saying that “the Nigerian and British government operation” prompted the executions.
Both Britain and Nigeria denied that they had launched any such mission.
The Greek and Italian governments separately said that their intelligences services had new information that confirmed Ansaru’s claims that it had executed the seven foreigners.
“Our checks conducted in co-ordination with the other countries concerned lead us to believe that the news of the killing of the hostages seized last month is true,” the foreign ministry in Rome said in a statement.
“This is a horrific act of terrorism for which there is no explanation except barbaric and blind violence.”
Several Nigerian news websites carried versions of a story that first appeared on February 23 claiming that the British aircraft seen at Abuja were on their way to Bauchi state, where the kidnapping took place.
They were there, one report stated, “to prepare the ground for the eventual release of the foreigners”.
Britain’s High Commissioner to Nigeria was quoted in the article denying this, saying the aircraft were part of “routine military-to-military engagement”.
“There are a number of deployments as parts of various engagements in Africa which will include the movement of assets,” the Foreign Office said on Sunday.
In its statement saying it had executed the hostages, Ansaru included links to some of the online stories, as part of its justification for the executions.
Setraco has not commented on the reports that its employees were killed.
They were seized in a well-planned raid in February, when gunmen first attacked a police station to divert security sources’ attention and then hit the Setraco compound.
Nigerian staff were left unharmed while the expatriates were found and led away.
Northern Nigeria faces repeated attacks from a series of fundamentalist militia who are variously campaigning for strict Islamic law to be applied to the region, or against Western operations elsewhere in the world.
Ansaru was responsible for the kidnap and murder of another British contractor, Chris McManus, who was abducted with an Italian colleague in 2011.
He died after a failed SBS mission to rescue him last March.
Since then, at least other 15 foreigners are believed to be being held hostage in northern Nigeria, including a French family with their four children seized in neighbouring Cameroon last month.
Days earlier, attackers killed three North Korean doctors in Potiskum.