Was abducted Italian aid worker victim of an ivory deal gone sour?

A police helicopter hovers over Chakama village in search of aid worker Silvia Romano in November. /ALPHONCE GARI
A police helicopter hovers over Chakama village in search of aid worker Silvia Romano in November. /ALPHONCE GARI

Exactly three months ago on November 21, Italian aid worker Silvia Romano was abducted in Kililfi and the case made international headlines.

Today the trail seems to have gone cold. Officials and police refuse comment.There are more intriguing questions and theories swirling about than answers.

The latest: Romano may have been killed in a shootout between her abductors and al Shabaab militants over an ivory trafficking deal gone sour.

This theory is becoming popular in Kilifi’s Chakama village where Romano was abducted and Tana Delta where the kidnapping is believed to have been planned.

She was kidnapped on November 21 last year, in the evening. A woman and four children were injured during the abduction. So was Romano.

Villagers and security sources indicated the 23-year-old might have been involved in multi-million shilling ivory trade. They suggested she was abducted after her partners soured on the deal.

Another theory goes that the Italian Government secretly paid ransom and sneaked her back to Europe.

It’s not clear which, if any, theory is true. The Star has been unable to independently verify the claims.

Until her abduction, Romano was a manager at Africa Milele Onlus in Kilifi. She previously worked with an NGO in Malindi.

Heavily armed gunmen kidnapped her from a rental house in Chakama.

Did kidnappers agree to hand her over to Shabaab for onward trafficking into Somalia?

The abductors were to be paid handsomely for selling off the foreigner. A shootout ensued after the two groups disagreed over the prize, a theory goes. Romano is also said to have been killed.

There are claims Romano had been in communication with one of her abductors, a neighbour, hours before the kidnap. The claim was made in the media, anonymously quoting investigating officers.

One of the kidnappers is said to have rented a house opposite Romano. He is believed to have orchestrated the abduction.

HAIR BAND IN FOREST

The suspect with whom Romano communicated is said to have sent her messages demanding to be paid for supplying an ivory consignment. The batch had been dispatched in April and smuggled out of the country.

Last month, however, police said they believed Romano was still within the villages of Tana Delta in neighbouring Tana River county.

There has been a heavy security presence in the delta, including Special Forces and Italian Commandos who have all been unable to find Romano.

The team has since withdrawn from the area, raising questions about what transspired.

When Romano was abducted, she was dragged towards Sabaki River. They crossed the river on foot.

Romano’s house is 20km from a police station. It took more than two hours for AP officers from Langobaya to arrive. By then,the abductors had crossed the river. The APs shot in the air severally but did not pursue the kidnappers further. It was dark.

Several arrests have been made. The rescue operation involved a APs, Regular Police, GSU, KWS, Kenya Defense Forces and Special Forces with modern equipment including drones. They focussed on Magarini and Dakatcha forests where the kidnappers were believed to be hiding.

It later emerged that the abductors had crossed over to Tana River through Tana Delta. They were planning to cross over to Somalia where it was initially agreed Romano would be handed over to al Shabaab in exchange of money.

Italian journalists with the security team found a hairband belonging to Romano inside Dakatcha Forest. So the abductors did pass through the forest on their way to Tana River.

Two weeks ago, reporters who toured Dakatcha met boda boda riders who said the abductors stayed with Romano in the forest for a week.

“The gunmen had motorbikes and used to send their colleagues to buy food at gunpoint. They ordered that no one disclose their whereabouts to police,” said a rider who asked to remain anonymous.

Police issued a Sh1 million bounty each for Ibrahim Adam Omar, Yusuf Kuno Adan and Said Adan Abdi, the top suspects in the abduction.

A suspect’s wife was arrested alongside his in-law inTarassaa area of Tana Delta. The breastfeeding mother with a week-old baby was arrested after police intercepted her calls with the husband.

Interior CS Fred Matiang’i recently said the operation was still in top gear. Tana River police chiefs have appealed to residents to provide tips.

Governor Dhadho Godhana said in December the kidnap had discouraged foreign investors.

Italian billionaire Flavio Briatore said Romano was partly to blame for living far from a police post.

Police have banned night movements across River Sabaki and placed blocked the border between Tana River and Lamu to prevent suspects from escaping to Somalia.

Maybe they already have crossed the border. The mystery remains unsolved. Tana Delta leaders have called for a manhunt in the villages.