An American woman and her driver have been kidnapped and held for ransom by gunmen in Uganda’s most popular wildlife park, local authorities said Wednesday.
The woman, identified as 35-year-old Kimberley Sue Endecott, was traveling among a group of four people in Queen Elizabeth National Park on Tuesday when their vehicle was stopped by four gunmen, police said in a statement.
The woman and driver, identified as Jean Paul, were taken hostage and the woman’s phone was later used to demand a $500,000 ransom. The two remaining victims, described as an elderly couple, were left behind and able to call for help.
“I suspect the kidnappers left them because they were elderly. They took all their possessions,” Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo told Reuters.
Endecott, who is from California, entered Uganda on March 29 with the elderly couple and flew to the park the next day, Opondo said. It’s not clear what her relationship is with the other couple.
All exits between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is located along the park’s border, have been closed in an attempt to block the suspects’ escape, authorities said.
“We strongly believe the perpetrators, and victims could still be trapped within our search area, and we are hopeful that our efforts will lead to their successful recovery,” the police department said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kampala said in a statement that it is aware of the incident. It urged the public to exercise caution if traveling to this area due to ongoing security activity.
Violence within the park is not common, though there have been attacks in Uganda by the Somali Islamist militant group, al Shabaab. The DRC is also home to many fragmented rebel groups and has issues with human trafficking.
Back in 1999, eight tourists, including an American couple and four Ugandan park employees, were killed in another national park south of where Tuesday’s kidnapping occurred. That attack involved rebels believed to be linked to ethnic Hutu militias involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, The New York Times reported.
The park on Wednesday said it has strengthened safety measures for both local residents and visitors in response to the incident.