Gunmen seize two Spanish aid workers from Kenyan camp

Police fear female medics helping famine victims were abducted by Islamic militants from Somalia

Two Spanish aid workers were abducted from a refugee camp in Kenya yesterday in an incident that could complicate the international response to the famine in the Horn of Africa.

A search and rescue effort was under way last night as authorities said they were trying to prevent the kidnappers, who are believed to be Somali, from crossing the border back into Somalia. Police suspect that insurgents from Somalia's Islamist al Shabaab movement, linked to al-Qa'ida, were responsible.

The Spanish women, who work for the international aid charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), were abducted by gunmen who hijacked their vehicle and wounded the driver. Officials with the MSF in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, confirmed that two staff had been kidnapped and said they had set up a crisis response team.

Yesterday's abduction follows a spate of kidnappings by Somali gangs that have wrecked tourism on the northern coast of Kenya. A Kenyan driver working with another aid organisation, Care International, was kidnapped near Dadaab in September.

It is feared that the latest incident could lead to the withdrawal of much-needed international staff from the sprawling complex of Kenyan refugee camps that acts as a magnet for hundreds of thousands of Somalis fleeing starvation on the other side of the border. The population at the three sites, known collectively as Dadaab, has swollen to more than 450,000, making it the largest refugee camp in the world.

MSF is the primary health provider for people at Dadaab, about 50 miles south of the Somali border. The new security threat will make it even harder for aid agencies to reach famine victims. The camps are managed by the United Nations, which works with aid groups to provide basic services.

The Kenyan government has been criticised for delaying a planned expansion of the camps but it says security concerns are the reason it is reluctant to allow Dadaab to get any bigger.

Kenya's northern neighbour has been wracked by conflict for most of the past 20 years. Much of southern Somalia is controlled by al Shabaab, a radical Islamic militia which is fighting the UN-backed government.

The Dadaab complex has three main sites and a number of other unfenced areas where the thousands of daily newcomers are being settled. The camps are connected by a mesh of dirt roads with few checkpoints and only light security. MSF said the aid workers' vehicle was attacked near the Ifo extension – an area of scrub and desert where the overflow of refugees lives in tents.

Baijo Mohamed, a youth leader in Dadaab, told the Associated Press news agency that the Kenyan driver was shot in the neck. A spokesman for the MSF said he was in a stable condition in hospital. The attackers are believed to have come from Somalia, according to police, because that was the direction in which they fled after the attack.

"We are following them by the road and air. We have closed the borders. We are tracking them down," said a police chief, Leo Nyongesa. However, officers made similar claims following recent tourist kidnappings on the coast, and security sources in Nairobi said it was highly likely that the gunmen had crossed back into Somalia soon after the attack.

In the past two months, the Somali gangs have changed tactics, with some of them giving up their from hijackings of ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden to concentrate on softer targets on land in northern Kenya.

A British woman, Judith Tebbutt, is being held in Somalia after gunmen attacked the Kenyan island lodge where she was staying on 11 September, killed her husband and kidnapped her. Three weeks later a wheelchair-bound Frenchwoman, Marie Dedieu, 66, was dragged from a beach bungalow near Lamu island by Somali gunmen. She is also being held north of the border.