By Daud Yussuf
GARISSA, Kenya, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Somali gunmen who kidnapped two Italian nuns from a Kenyan border town were taking them deeper into Somalia on Tuesday, a local Somali government official said, and he appealed to Kenya to help track them down.
The pair were seized in a pre-dawn raid on Monday by scores of attackers who stormed the small town of El Wak, firing wildly and launching a rocket at a Kenyan police post before escaping back across the border in hijacked vehicles.
The abduction underlined the risks in the Horn of Africa country for humanitarian workers who have increasingly been targeted this year in kidnappings and killings usually blamed on Islamist rebels, clan militia or criminal gangs.
"We've been searching for the nuns and the bandits since last night and there's no trace of them," Hussein Sheikh Hassan, administrator of El Wak district in Somalia, told Reuters. He said he believed the kidnappers were heading towards Garbahaarey, about 175 km (110 miles) northeast of El Wak town.
"We are finding it very difficult to trail them. We ask Kenya's government to cooperate and help us coordinate the search ... We'll welcome any Kenyan delegation, whether security or elders, so as to rescue the nuns and recover the cars."
Cross-border raids are common in the remote, arid region, but usually involve cattle rustlers or gangs of robbers preying on business people in both countries. Ill-funded Kenyan security forces can do little to police the vast, impoverished area.
On Monday, the abducted nuns' missionary group, the Movimento Contemplativo Missionario Padre de Foucauld, named them as Caterina Giraudo, 67, and Maria Teresa Olivero, 60.
Suspicion for kidnappings and assassinations normally falls on Islamist insurgents or clan militia, but rebel leaders have said government hardliners are behind the killings to discredit them and stir the international community to intervene.
In the latest show of force by the hardline Islamist al Shabaab group, its fighters seized two southern towns, Bulamarer and Qoryoley in the Lower Shabelle region, on Tuesday.
"We had very few soldiers so we ran for our lives," Nur Jibril, the Qoryoley police commander, told Reuters by phone.
Battles between the Islamists and local militia also killed six people in El Dheer, in Galgadud region, and al Shabaab gunmen in trucks mounted with heavy weapons were also said to be heading towards Merka town, local officials said. (Additional reporting by Somalia team: Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Matthew Jones)
SOURCE: Reuters, Tuesday, November 11, 2008