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US cautions its citizens as Ugandan authorities mount search for kidnapped tourist

US Ambassador to Uganda  H.E Deborah Malac.  (FILE PHOTO)

BWINDI – Security forces scoured dense bush this week in the hunt for a US tourist and her safari guide who were kidnapped by gunmen in a national park.

“The operation to rescue the tourist is still ongoing,” Uganda’s tourism minister, Godfrey Kiwanda, told the media on Thursday morning.

Army spokesman Brigadier Richard Karemire said security forces were doing all they could to track down the gunmen.

“Let the security forces do their work,” he said Thursday.

The US Embassy in Kampala said it was aware of the kidnapping, and warned its citizens to “exercise caution when travelling to this area due to ongoing security activity.”

Soldiers have fanned out along the porous border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, with security forces insisting they believe the pair remain in the country.

Meanwhile, the wildlife authority said on Thursday the kidnapped tourist had failed to take an armed ranger as required by the park’s regulations.

“We have armed ranger guides, if you’re going out on a drive in the park you’re supposed to have one but these tourists went out on their own without a guard,” Bashir Hangi, spokesman for the state-run Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), told Reuters.

Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Rangers stand at the endpoint. (PHOTO/FILE)

“From their camp in the park, they just got into a vehicle and went out. They should have notified us and informed us that they’re going out for a game drive and then we would have availed them a guard but they didn’t do this.”

California-based Endecott and the couple entered Uganda on March 29 and flew the next day to the park in the country’s southwest, the spokesman added.

Ugandan authorities on Wednesday launched an extensive rescue operation for an American woman and her driver who were kidnapped at Uganda’s most popular wildlife park.

Kimberley Sue Endecott, 35, and Ugandan driver Jean Paul were on a game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park when four gunmen ambushed their vehicle on Tuesday evening, a police statement said.

The statement added that an elite unit of the Tourism Police had been dispatched to actively pursue the kidnappers and successfully recover the victims.

“The joint security teams have cut off all exit areas on the border between Uganda and the DRC in search of the victims,” the statement added, warning the group may still be in the park.

Police said the kidnapping appeared financially motivated since the group quickly made a demand of $500,000 (Shs1.9b) using Endecott’s mobile.

The police was quick to reassure any tourists planning to visit the national park, saying the kidnapping was an isolated case. ‘‘Strengthened safety measures have been put in place for both the local residents and visitors.’‘

The park, Uganda’s most visited, is located about 400 km (250 miles) southwest of the capital Kampala, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is home to many fragmented rebel groups.

The Somali Islamist militant group al Shabaab has carried out attacks in Uganda in the past but has never been known to kidnap anyone for ransom there.

A mountain Gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Bwindi begins about 20 km (12 miles) south of Queen Elizabeth National Park, where tourists flock to see lions, hippos, crocodiles, chimpanzees and other African wildlife in an area of lakes, Savannah, forests and swamps.

Tourism is a key industry for Uganda, as a major earner of foreign currency. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit each year. Uganda is home to over half of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas.

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