MOGADISHU, Somalia — As night fell, gunmen sneaked into the International Committee of the Red Cross compound in Somalia's capital through a back door and seized a German nurse and a local colleague before forcing them outside and into a waiting car.
The daring attack, carried out despite the presence of nearly 10 security guards, struck fear once again into the aid community in Somalia, one of the world's most dangerous countries for humanitarians. The ICRC said it was evacuating 10 non-Somali staffers to Kenya and "winding down" activities in parts of Somalia outside the capital.
Wednesday night's abduction of the nurse, identified by a colleague as Sonja Nientiet, came a day after a Somali staffer with the World Health Organization was shot dead at close range in a market elsewhere in Mogadishu. And in March, a local Red Cross staffer died of his injuries after a bomb attached to his vehicle exploded near the aid group's office.
Hundreds of soldiers were deployed across Mogadishu on Thursday as security officials said they believed the kidnappers had remained in the capital after abandoning their car not far away. The nurse's Somali colleague told security officers he managed to escape after one of the car's tires blew out.
"We shall never give up to rescue the hostage," police Capt. Mohamed Hussein told The Associated Press. The deputy head of the Red Cross delegation in Somalia, Daniel O'Malley, said in a statement that the ICRC was "deeply concerned" and called for the woman's immediate release.
"She is a nurse who was working every day to save lives and improve the health of some of Somalia's most vulnerable people," he said.
While security officials said the ICRC compound's security guards had been detained, suspicion fell on what the spokesman for Somalia's internal security ministry, Abdulaziz Hildhiban, called "a disgruntled former employee." He said the suspect is known and "the government is chasing their whereabouts."
The area where the abduction occurred is home to several aid agencies and is considered one of the safest neighborhoods in Mogadishu. Safety, however, is relative in a city that is often targeted by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group, which in October killed more than 500 people with a truck bombing on a busy street.
In recent years, the number of foreign aid workers in Mogadishu has increased as security improves after a quarter-century of violent chaos.
The nurse's abduction, the first of a foreign aid worker in Mogadishu in more than six years, threatens to complicate aid efforts in a country that last year faced severe drought affecting millions of people and now suffers from heavy seasonal rains.
"I never felt more worried and terrified than I do now," said Ahmed Mohamed, a field officer with a local Somali aid organization. "This is a sad reality that we must face."
Experts said the targeting of aid workers could be a new tactic by the Somalia-based al-Shabab to scare off foreigners even as the government tries to promote the country as recovering and open for business.
"Blowing apart any hope of creating a positive impression in Somalia is another way for al-Shabab to compensate for its helplessness in staging large attacks in recent months," said Siyad Muhummed, a security expert in Mogadishu.
Al-Shabab continues to control large parts of rural Somalia despite the efforts of a large multinational African Union force and dozens of U.S. drone strikes in the past year alone.
Violence against aid workers in Somalia went up sharply last year, including the abductions of more than 30 humanitarian staffers, in part because of scaled-up relief operations outside the capital during the drought.
At least 30 aid workers were killed in 2016 and 2017, the United Nations says.