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Member Advisory: Kidnapping in Queen Elizabeth National Park


April 4, 2019
Categories: Alerts, Advisories, Destinations, Security and Intelligence

Update - April 8, 2019: The two kidnapped individuals—the U.S. national and her tour guide—were released unharmed on 7 April after nearly five days in captivity. A ransom was reportedly paid for their release in a negotiated handover, though it remains unclear who paid the ransom and how much was paid. Further details surrounding the nature of their rescue remain unclear.


On 2 April, a U.S. national was kidnapped at gunpoint while on a game drive in the Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth National Park, a popular wildlife reserve in southwest Uganda that runs along the country’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to local media, the incident took place between approximately 18:00 and 19:00 local time while the victims were driving on Edward track between Katoke gate and the Wilderness Camp in Kanungu District.

Four armed assailants reportedly kidnapped a 35-year old U.S. citizen and her Ugandan driver, along with four additional people, including an elderly Canadian couple who were later freed. Local authorities indicated that although the park requires visitors to take an armed ranger, the group was traveling without an armed guard1. The kidnappers—whose identities remain unknown, have since demanded USD $500,000 as ransom for the U.S. national, which police have said they will not be paying. The kidnappers reportedly used the cell phones of the victims to call the lodge at which the victims were staying to demand the ransom.

Operations to rescue the victims are currently underway. Authorities reportedly closed the Uganda-DRC border, which runs through Queen Elizabeth National Park, though police believe the victims are still in Uganda. An elite unit of the Tourism Police has been deployed to rescue the victims, and the U.S. Embassy in Kampala warned in an alert on 4 April that travelers should exercise caution while traveling in the area due to ongoing law enforcement and security activity.

Analysis
As one of Uganda’s most popular safari destinations, thousands of tourists visit Queen Elizabeth National Park annually. While security incidents at the park are rare, there is a risk of kidnapping throughout Uganda. A spate of kidnappings for ransom in 2018 prompted protests in the capital, Kampala, in June 2018 after police confirmed 42 cases—including eight deaths—in the first half of the year.

The risk of kidnapping is compounded near the country’s porous border with the DRC, as militias based in the DRC have been known to cross the border into Uganda to conduct criminal activity. While it remains too early to determine who was behind the recent kidnapping, several armed groups operate in Uganda and in eastern DRC.

The Kanungu District, where the kidnapping on 2 April took place, has seen several KFR (kidnap for randsom) incidents in recent months. Police had reportedly ramped up security operations in Kanungu following the kidnapping of six Ugandans, including a 12-year old child, in recent weeks. On 7 January 2019, a Ugandan resident of Butogota in Kanungu District was kidnapped by an armed militia and released after a ransom was paid. On 3 August 2018, a Ugandan man was kidnapped in Kanungu District while driving through Queen Elizabeth National Park after Congolese militants shot and injured three members of his party. The victim was released after a ransom was paid by his family.

Advice

Maintain an enhanced level of awareness.
In regions where there is a threat of kidnapping, it is essential to maintain an enhanced level of awareness and to strictly adhere to established threat mitigations. Vigilance is a skill that must be developed through preparation and practice. It is important to establish a “baseline” of what is normal –anything out of the ordinary deserves a second look.

It is important to let someone trusted know your travel plans each day.
Tell someone where you are going, when you are leaving and when you will return. They should know how to get in touch with you and who to notify if you do not return as expected. Keep these people updated as your plans change.

Kidnappings are typically not opportunistic, spur-of-the-moment crimes.
Oftentimes, kidnappings are well planned and preceded by varying levels of surveillance by the criminals and their accomplices. Surveillance can be recognized, as it is usually something outside of the normal “baseline” of activities. 

Travelers are advised to do the following if they think they are under surveillance.

  • A “see something, say something” attitude is pointless without the added guidance of what to say and who to say it to. Be an accurate witness, as details are important.
  • Timeliness is critical when something strange is observed. The information should be shared with law enforcement, security personnel, management, colleagues and/or other travelers as soon as possible.
  • Be descriptive and include important details. For vehicles, describe the make, style, color and license plate if possible. For people, describe the suspect’s gender, clothing, build and race. For instance, instead of saying “A man in a truck got out and took some pictures,” you should say, “At 8:30 a.m., a tall white man wearing a blue shirt and tan pants got out of a red Toyota pickup truck and took pictures of guests arriving at the hotel. He then got back in the vehicle and headed north.” These types of details may lead to the identification and prevention of further surveillance, reducing the likelihood of a subsequent crime.

If you are kidnapped, continue to assess the situation.
Make decisions aimed at keeping yourself alive. It is important to keep your mind active and aware rather than mentally shut down.

Travelers are advised to do the following in the event of a kidnapping.

  • Asses the imminent threat to your life. If you fight, will your kidnappers kill you? Is there a gun in your face? If the answer is yes, you should be apparently compliant and as calm as possible. This is the most dangerous point in the kidnapping, as attackers may be prone to more risky behavior. Continue to assess the situation and the threat to your life.
  • If it is somewhat safe to do so, attempt to be seen by as many people as possible.
  • If you think you are being kidnapped, call someone right away if it is possible to do so discretely or without endangering yourself. Do not end the call. Leave the connection open and make sure to take the phone with you if possible. The attackers will eventually find and take the phone, but the initial call can aid in rescue efforts.
  • While you are kidnapped, all of your efforts should be focused toward increasing your awareness and enhancing your survivability. If the attacker’s intention is financial, they have an interest in keeping you alive. Continue to assess the threat and keep your mind active. Humanizing yourself to your captors can help in receiving things like food, water, and other necessities. For example, say “I’m thirsty, I need water.” Do not start into complex debates or empathize with “the struggle” of your attackers.
  • In the event of a rescue operation, there may likely be gunfire. You may hear commotion, strange voices and commands. Get on the floor or ground, stay still and do what you are told by the rescuers. Stay calm and compliant.

Be smart, be aware, do not become complacent and always adhere with established security procedures and mitigations. These basic efforts will reduce your likelihood of being kidnapped.

Our operations team is standing by 24/7/365 to provide travel assistance and advisory services to members. Contact Global Rescue at +1.617.459.4200 or email us at memberservices@globalrescue.com.

1While it was widely reported that a spokesperson with the Uganda Wildlife Authority said that armed guides are required when on game drives in the park, additional reporting has cited other sources that say there is no such requirement.


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