The search continues for a Perth doctor and his wife who were abducted by suspected Islamist extremists in West Africa.
Dr Ken Elliot and his wife Jocelyn, both in their 80s, were believed to have been taken by terrorists from the country of Burkina Faso on Friday, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed.
But, according to counter-terrorism researcher Professor Greg Barton, the Australian government was unlikely to pay a ransom to secure the release of the Australian couple.
Professor Barton warned any potential rescue operation would prove extremely difficult, given Australia’s limited connections in the region.
The couple were well loved by the Djibo community, in the north of Burkina Faso, where they operated the town’s only hospital – the only reliable surgical centre in the region.
In a statement, the family of the captive Australians said the couple’s whereabouts and wellbeing were unknown.
“They have dedicated their lives to providing medical relief to people in the remote northern area of Burkina Faso,” they said, adding they did not know why the couple had been taken.
“Their commitment to the local people is reflected in the fact that they have continued there with only a few holidays since 1972. They are held in high esteem by the local people.”
The Elliots, both devout Christians and dedicated to helping others, were not unfamiliar to the conditions in the volatile former French colony, having lived there for more than 40 years.
Burkina Faso’s president Roch Marc Christian Kabore said they were kidnapped in Baraboule, about 30km from Djibo, while the spokesperson for a Malian militant group said the couple were in the hands of al Qaeda-linked jihadists.
Hamadou Ag Khallini, of Islamist group Ansar Dine, said the pair were being held by ‘Emirate of the Sahara’, a branch of Algerian-based group ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’.
Professor Barton told The New Daily the kidnapping was likely an “opportunistic incursion” from over the Malian border.
“We don’t know too much about the group responsible, but small groups copy big groups, the hope is that they are not very experienced and are more open to negotiation or persuasion,” he said.
“But similarly, there is also a concern they could be very unstable.”
‘Ransom big business’
The couple migrated to Djibo, in the north of the landlocked west African country, in 1972 to construct and operate the town’s only hospital, Centre Medico-Chirurgicale de Djibo, which relies on donations to operate.
It is now the only reliable surgical centre for up to two million people, who travel from Burkina, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Mali to access the service.
Ken worked as the only surgeon at the centre, conducting about 150 operations each month in the simple facility.
Before moving to Burkina Faso, they lived and worked in Western Australia.
Ken worked with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Fremantle Hospital, and was formerly a farmer in Western Australia. Little is known about his wife, Jocelyn.
For now, it seems the pair may be alive.
This was according to the spokesperson for Ansar Dine, who also said more details would be released soon.
Professor Barton said it was likely a ransom would be requested, but the Australian government would not pay it.
“There is a big business … across Africa, the Middle East and Asia in kidnapping for ransom and whilst it seems tough to say you wont pay a ransom, the logic is – and Australia and US follow this quite strictly – that if you pay a ransom you encourage the business and you encourage the next kidnapping,” he said.
‘Rescue operation would be risky’
Very little has been confirmed publicly by officials, except to say they were examining their options.
“All actions the Australian government takes will be in the interest of their welfare,” acting Prime Minister Warren Truss said in a statement on Sunday.
“However, I can say that we are working with local authorities through our High Commission in Accra, Ghana, which is responsible for Australian interests in Burkina Faso.”
The Australian government has a low presence in the region, exemplified by the fact the nearest embassy is located in Accra – more than 1100km from Djibo.
Professor Barton said diplomacy would be the first avenue of response, as a rescue operation could be very risky, particularly when dealing with unstable militant groups who could be “trigger happy”.
“If it was South East Asia, where we have good resources and a good partnership, it would be quite a different dynamic, but in west Africa we have very little resources and very little connection,” he said.
“The government will be working very hard behind the scenes, but it will be behind the scenes because the more it is in the spotlight, the harder it is for them to work.”
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb later claimed responsibility for the attack. It was not yet clear if the two were related.