Six crew from German ship kidnapped in Nigerian waters

BERLIN (Reuters) – Six crew from a German container vessel have been kidnapped in Nigerian waters, a shipping company said on Tuesday.

Four of those taken are Filipino, and one is a Ukrainian national, according to the Philippines department of labor and Ukrainian foreign ministry.

Kidnapping for ransom is a common problem in parts of Nigeria. A number of foreigners have, in the last few years, been kidnapped in the Niger Delta, source of most of the crude oil which is Nigeria’s economic mainstay.

“The vessel was attacked by pirates on early Saturday morning when it was approaching one of the ports of Nigeria,” said a spokesman for Peter Doehle Schiffahrts KG.

“Six of the crew were taken off the ship and they are now held by kidnappers in Nigeria,” he said. There were no German nationals among the kidnapped but the spokesman declined to say where those abducted were from.

Those kidnapped comprise four Filipinos, one Ukrainian and one Hungarian, officials from the countries involved told Reuters.

At the time of the statement there was no official contact with the kidnappers and the vessel had moved away from Nigerian waters with the 12 remaining crew safe, the spokesman said.

“The top priority is to try and establish contact with the kidnappers and try to have a quick and safe release of our seafarers,” he said.

Germany’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Four of the six abducted crew members are Filipinos, the Philippines labor secretary told Reuters.

An official at Ukraine’s foreign ministry said preliminary information indicated a Ukrainian citizen was among those kidnapped. He gave no further details.

One Hungarian national was also taken, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the rescue operations.

The Hungarian foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi and Paul Carsten in Abuja, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Karen Lema in Manila and Krisztina Than in Budapest; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Kidnapped U.S.-Canadian couple, three children freed in Pakistan

A still image from a video posted by the Taliban on social media on December 19, 2016 shows American Caitlan Coleman (L) speaking next to her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their two sons. Courtesy Taliban/Social media via REUTERS

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A kidnapped U.S.-Canadian couple and their three children born in captivity have been freed in Pakistan, nearly five years after the couple was abducted in neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistani and U.S. officials said on Thursday.

American Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle were kidnapped while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012 by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network, which the United States has long accused Pakistan of failing to fight.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been highly critical of Islamabad, praised Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. government over the freeing of the hostages, saying it represented “a positive moment” for U.S.-Pakistan relations.

“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region,” Trump said in a statement.

The Pakistani army and U.S. government statements offered no details about the operation itself.

The Pakistani army said its forces “recovered” the hostages after acting on U.S. intelligence about their passage into Pakistan from Afghanistan. A U.S. State Department statement used the word “rescue” to describe efforts by the U.S. and Pakistani governments to secure the hostages’ release.

Coleman was pregnant at the time she was kidnapped, and a video released by the Taliban in December showed two sons born while she and her husband were hostages.

Thursday’s statements from Islamabad and Washington were the first mention of a third child.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland asked for respect for the family’s privacy and thanked the governments of the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan for their efforts to win the hostages’ release.

“Joshua, Caitlan, their children and the Boyle and Coleman families have endured a horrible ordeal over the past five years. We stand ready to support them as they begin their healing journey,” Freeland said.

The Pakistani effort came as Pakistan and the United States, uneasy allies in fighting Taliban and other Islamist extremists in the region, are experiencing one of the worst lows in their relations.

In recent days, senior U.S. officials have been more pointed about Islamabad’s alleged ties to militant groups, who are battling against U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

The United States has repeatedly accused Pakistan of granting safe haven to militants fighting a 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, further complicating a drawn out conflict that the U.S. military has described as a stalemate between the Taliban and U.S.-backed Afghan government forces.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the United States would try “one more time” to work with Pakistan in Afghanistan before Trump would “take whatever steps are necessary” to change Pakistan’s behavior.

Pakistan touted the success of the operation as proof of the strength of the alliance.

“The success underscores the importance of timely intelligence sharing and Pakistan’s continued commitment toward fighting this menace through cooperation between two forces against a common enemy,” the Pakistani army statement said.

U.S. intelligence agencies had been tracking the hostages and on Wednesday shared that the family had been moved to Pakistan through Kurram tribal area border, the army said. No other details were immediately available.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump’s strategy in the region recognized “the important role Pakistan needs to play to bring stability and ultimately peace to the region.”

“The United States is hopeful that Pakistan’s actions will further a U.S.-Pakistan relationship marked by growing commitments to counterterrorism operations and stronger ties in all other respects,” Tillerson said.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, Andrea Hopkins in Ottawa; Editing by Nick Macfie, Andrew Heavens and Frances Kerry)

Family of Chinese scholar missing in Illinois asks Trump for help

Chinese student Yingying Zhang is seen in a still image from security camera video taken outside an MTD Teal line bus in Urbana, Illinois, U.S. June 9, 2017. University of Illinois Police/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Family members of a Chinese scholar presumed kidnapped in Illinois asked President Donald Trump on Tuesday to provide additional resources to help find her.

Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar to the University of Illinois from southeastern China, disappeared on June 9. Police believe Zhang is dead, although no body has been found.

Brendt Christensen, a former master’s student at the university, has been charged with abducting Zhang. Christensen, 28, pleaded not guilty to the kidnapping last month and is scheduled to stand trial in September.

Yingying Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, cited the president’s own role as a father in a letter sent to Trump earlier this month and read by Zhang’s boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, at a news conference on Tuesday.

“As a loving father to your own children, you can understand what we are going through,” the letter said. “We fervently request that you direct all available federal law enforcement and investigatory resources be used to find our daughter as soon as possible.”

A White House representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

Hou also told reporters at the news conference in Champaign, Illinois, that he and the family would not return to China until Zhang is found.

An online fundraising platform has collected more than $137,000 to support the family’s stay in the United States.

The case has been watched closely by Chinese media, China government officials and Chinese students in the United States.

Zhang, who had been studying photosynthesis and crop productivity, was last seen when a security camera recorded her getting into a black car that authorities linked to Christensen, according to court documents.

Christensen was placed under surveillance by federal agents who heard him talking about how he kidnapped Zhang, court records said. He could receive a life sentence if convicted.

Christensen’s attorney, Anthony Bruno, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that the defense received more than 1,000 pages of police reports related to the case earlier this month, and expects to gain access to video evidence soon.

Bruno said the defense plans to request a delay to the start of the trial to get additional time to review the “enormous” amount of evidence received from the government.

A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Springfield, Illinois, office referred questions to U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Sharon Paul.

Paul said in a phone interview on Tuesday that prosecutors have no update on Yingying Zhang’s whereabouts and declined to provide details of the FBI’s search efforts.

(Reporting by Julia Jacobs in Chicago; Editing by Patrick Enright and Matthew Lewis)

Nigeria’s freed Chibok girls to return home ‘fully recovered’

Nigeria's freed Chibok girls to return home 'fully recovered'

By Paul Carsten

ABUJA (Reuters) – More than 100 girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in the Nigerian town of Chibok in 2014 are ready to return to normal life after being released and receiving psychological and medical treatment, the government said on Friday.

Some 270 girls were originally abducted by the Islamist group but 82 were freed in May this year after mediation, adding to 24 who were released or found last year. The girls have been receiving psychological and medical care in the capital, Abuja, as part of a government rehabilitation program.

“All the 106 girls are now fully recovered, ready for re-integration with their families and the larger society, and to go back to school,” Aisha Jummai Alhassan, minister of women affairs, told a news conference.

“They are now stabilized and most of their traumatic stress disorder symptoms have been overcome and previously frequent incidents of flashbacks, insomnia and nightmares have now been successfully brought under control,” she said.

Some of them underwent surgery, and a prosthetic limb was provided for a girl who lost a leg while in captivity. Four babies were also said to be in good health.

Of the 270 girls who were originally taken, about 60 escaped soon afterwards but around 100 are still believed to be in captivity. Alhassan said negotiations to secure their release were ongoing.

Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million during an eight-year insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.

The Chibok case provoked global outrage and a celebrity-backed campaign to raise awareness of the girls’ plight, but aid groups say Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands more adults and children, many of whose cases are neglected.

A United Nations human rights committee called in July for Nigeria’s government to step up efforts to rescue all women and girls abducted by Boko Haram and ensure they returned to school without stigma.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Boko Haram wing tied to IS marks resurgence by kidnapping oil workers

Boko Haram wing tied to IS marks resurgence by kidnapping oil workers

By Alexis Akwagyiram

LAGOS (Reuters) – A Boko Haram faction with ties to Islamic State and responsible for the kidnapping of a Nigerian oil prospecting team which led to at least 37 people being killed has become a deadly force capable of carrying out highly-organized attacks.

Nigerian government forces have focused on crushing the best-known branch of the Islamist militant group whose leader Abubakar Shekau has led an eight-year insurgency to create an Islamic state in the northeast which has killed thousands.

But while Nigeria has claimed the capture of Shekau’s main base in the Sambisa forest and freed many of more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by his faction in April 2014 in Chibok town, a rival wing has developed the capacity to carry out attacks on a larger scale.

At least 37 people, including members of the team, rescuers from the military and vigilantes, died last week when security forces tried to free those being held by the Boko Haram faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi who is trying to thwart government efforts to explore for oil in the Lake Chad Basin.

That wing is “much better organized than the Shekau faction” which typically stages suicide bombings in mosques and markets, said Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft consultancy group.

“The Shekau faction does not seem to have a clear ideology or any strategy,” said Liewerscheidt. That makes it easier for al-Barnawi’s faction to recruit whereas Shekau’s faction was not trusted by locals, he said.

And despite the assessment that it is less organized, Shekau’s faction has stepped up suicide bombings in the last few weeks, killing at least 113 people since June 1, according to a Reuters tally.

The combined attacks by the two wings marks a resurgence by the group, months after President Muhammadu Buhari’s announcement in December 2016 that Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa forest had been captured.

Boko Haram, which has killed more than 20,000 people and forced some 2.7 million to flee their homes since 2009, split last year.

The division led by Shekau, Boko Haram’s most recognizable figure known for videos taunting Nigerian authorities circulated on social media, operates in the northeastern Sambisa forest and usually deploys girls as suicide bombers.

IS NAMED AL-BARNAWI

But, since Islamic State named al-Barnawi as Boko Haram’s leader in August 2016 after the west African militants pledged allegiance the previous year, his Lake Chad-based faction has been moving fighters and ammunition across porous borders in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

The head of a private Nigerian security firm, who did not want to be named, said al-Barnawi’s IS affiliation meant his wing benefits from sub-Saharan trade routes to ship weapons from lawless Libya where Islamic State is active.

His group has been planning a larger scale attack for some time, said a Western diplomat, speaking anonymously.

Boko Haram launched two attacks in June – the most prolonged raid on the northeastern city of Maiduguri in 18 months and an attack on a police convoy – which were more ambitious than routine suicide attacks. Shekau’s faction is widely believed to have been behind the two attacks.

Buhari has repeatedly said the insurgents are on the verge of defeat since the army, helped by neighboring countries, wrested back most of the land in Nigeria’s northeast, an area the size of Belgium, that the militants took in early 2015.

But security experts say the territorial gain has given a false impression because much of the liberated areas beyond main roads patrolled by the army remain no-go areas where displaced people cannot return to farm.

“While insurgent-held territory has been recaptured, this was conflated with a military victory,” said Ryan Cummings, director of Africa-focused risk management company Signal Risk.

“All that has happened is that Boko Haram has reverted to the asymmetrical armed campaign it had waged for the seven out of the eight years of its armed campaign against the Nigerian state,” he said.

The military has been forced to concentrate forces around Maiduguri, capital of the insurgency’s birthplace, Borno state, where Shekau’s faction has stepped up suicide bombings, which now occur on a near-daily basis.

RANSOM MONEY

A security analyst said Shekau’s wing used ransom money paid by the government to free Chibok girls to buy weapons and recruit fighters — the attacks stepped up after a deal was brokered in May to free 82 of them.

The return of experienced commanders freed in exchange for the girls had also bolstered his group, said the analyst, who asked not to be named. “The fact that they were held for some time suggests they were serious players,” he said.

Acting-President Yemi Osinbajo, in power while Buhari takes medical leave in Britain for an unspecified ailment, responded to the oil team’s abduction and frequent attacks by ordering military chiefs to “scale up their efforts” in Borno, according to a statement.

The military said armed forces chiefs relocated to Maiduguri on August 1. “This move and action are expected to give impetus to the military effort,” it said, without elaborating. The theater army commander is already based in the city.

(Additional reporting by Paul Carsten in Abuja; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Peter Millership)

Venezuela jails opposition leaders in new crackdown on opponents

Venezuela jails opposition leaders in new crackdown on opponents

By Corina Pons and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela jailed two leading critics of President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday in a fresh blow to the opposition after the election of a new political body with sweeping powers to strengthen the hand of the leftist government.

The United States imposed sanctions on Maduro on Monday, calling him a “dictator” for Sunday’s election of a constituent assembly that the opposition boycotted and denounced as an affront to democracy.

In a statement announcing the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and veteran politician Antonio Ledezma, the pro-government Supreme Court said they were planning to flee the country and had violated terms of their house arrest by making political statements and speaking to media.

But government opponents called the abrupt removal of the men from their homes by security forces in nighttime raids a sign of Maduro’s determination to silence rivals. It was a view shared by U.S. President Donald Trump, who issued a statement condemning “the actions of the Maduro dictatorship.”

“Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ledezma are political prisoners being held illegally by the regime,” it said, calling “for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.”

About 120 people have been killed in more than four months of anti-government street protests, including at least 10 during Sunday’s vote.

Maduro says the constituent assembly was designed to restore peace to Venezuela. Lopez and Ledezma had called for protests against Sunday’s vote. In addition to rewriting the constitution, the legislative superbody will have the power to dissolve the opposition-led congress, eliminating any institutional check on Maduro’s powers.

Lopez had been held more than three years in a military jail until last month, when he was unexpectedly released in what was seen as a potential breakthrough in the country’s political standoff.

Attempts to get the opposition and the government to reach a negotiated deal subsequently floundered, however, and allies said Lopez, 46, may have been jailed again because he rejected government proposals.

“They have kidnapped Leopoldo Lopez because he simply would not break under the pressures and false promises of the regime,” said Freddy Guevara, a legislator in the Popular Will party led by Lopez.

A U.S.-educated economist and former mayor in Caracas, Lopez is beloved by some in the opposition for his hard line anti-government stance and has become an international cause celebre.

The government sees him as an elitist coup-monger, and even some opposition sympathizers have criticized him for being hot-headed and authoritarian.

In a sign of heightening tensions, Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz said Beatriz Ruiz and Jose Fernando Nunez, both recently appointed judges of an alternative Supreme Court by the opposition parliament, took refuge in Chile’s embassy in Caracas on Tuesday and may be granted political asylum.

The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, mulled possible additional measures aimed at influencing Maduro. Senator Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday’s sanctions against the Venezuelan leader were not enough, and that punitive economic measures targeting the country’s vital oil sector may be in order.

The United States is Venezuela’s No. 1 crude importer. Actions targeting Venezuelan oil would likely heap more damage onto an economy already suffering from a deep recession, food shortages and the world’s highest inflation rate.

“Our objective needs to be to help the people of Venezuela through this extremely dangerous humanitarian crisis … and ultimately to get Venezuela back on a democratic path,” Cardin said.

AN ARREST FORETOLD

Lopez himself suspected he would be detained again, and had recorded a video alongside his wife Lilian Tintori in which he urged Venezuelans to keep fighting if he was put back behind bars.

“If you’re seeing this video it’s precisely because that’s what happened, they jailed me again, illegally and unjustly,” said Lopez, in the video shown on social media on Tuesday.

Blamed by many for rising poverty in Venezuela, Maduro has faced almost daily protests demanding freedom for jailed politicians, early elections to replace him and permitted entry of humanitarian aid such as food and medicines.

Lopez and Ledezma were both taken from their homes to Ramo Verde, a military jail in a slum area about an hour’s drive from the capital, according to lawyers and family.

Lopez was originally arrested for his role in leading street demonstrations against Maduro. Ledezma, a 62-year-old veteran politician, had been arrested on charges of plotting a coup.

Condemnation of Tuesday’s arrests also came from the United Nations human rights chief, the president of the European Parliament and other governments.

“We express our solidarity with Leopoldo Lopez, Antonio Ledezma and other political prisoners in Venezuela,” Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said on Twitter.

(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth, Eyanir Chinea, Diego Ore, Hugh Bronstein, Fabian Cambero and Andreina Aponte in Caracas, Tom Miles in Geneva, Sarah White in Madrid, Patricia Zengerle and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington D.C., Mitra Taj in Lima, Adriana Barrera in Mexico City and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by W Simon and Tom Brown)

Venezuela security agents seize opposition leaders from homes: family

Venezuela security agents seize opposition leaders from homes: family

By Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan security officials seized two opposition leaders from their homes in overnight raids, their families said on Tuesday, after they urged protests against a new legislative superbody widely denounced as anti-democratic.

Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma were both under house arrest, the former for his role in leading street protests against President Nicolas Maduro in 2014 and the latter on charges of plotting a coup.

“12:27 in the morning: the moment when the dictatorship kidnaps Leopoldo at my house,” Lopez’s wife Lilian Tintori wrote on Twitter.

She posted a link to a video that appeared to show Lopez being led into a vehicle emblazoned with the word Sebin, Venezuela’s intelligence agency.

The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Lopez and Ledezma are both former mayors in Caracas, and high-profile critics of Maduro.

They had called on Venezuelans to join protests over Sunday’s election of the constituent assembly, which supersedes an opposition-controlled congress that a pro-Maduro Supreme Court had already stripped of its powers.

At least 10 people were killed in unrest during the vote, which was boycotted by the opposition and criticized around the world as an assault on democratic freedoms.

“They have kidnapped @leopoldolopez because he simply would not break under the pressures and false promises of the regime,” wrote Freddy Guevara, a legislator from Lopez’s Popular Will party.

Vanessa Ledezma said she held Maduro responsible for what happened to her father.

“The Sebin just took him,” she wrote on Twitter, posting a video of intelligence agents taking Ledezma, who was dressed in pyjamas.

He was granted house arrest in 2015 after being imprisoned on charges of leading a coup against Maduro.

Lopez was granted house arrest in July following three years in prison for his role in anti-government street protests in 2014. His release was considered a major breakthrough in the country’s political standoff.

Lopez’s lawyer, Juan Gutierrez, wrote on Twitter that “there is no legal justification to revoke the house arrest measure.”

(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by John Stonestreet)

Suspected Boko Haram militants issue video of three kidnapped oil survey team members

A car drives towards a Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) sector 5 sign in Maiduguri, Nigeria August 30, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

BAUCHI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Suspected Boko Haram members released a video on Saturday that shows three kidnapped members of an oil exploration team in northeastern Nigeria, one of whom asks the government to reduce the use of force against the jihadists.

The team, which included university staff and employees from Nigeria’s state oil firm, was kidnapped by suspected members of the Islamist militant group while searching for oil in the conflict-ridden northeast on Tuesday.

A rescue attempt on Wednesday ended in the deaths of at least 37 members of the original prospecting team and the rescuers, including Nigerian military and armed vigilantes, according to officials and military sources.

It prompted a change of tactic by the government amid a spate of attacks by the group whose bid to create an Islamic state in the northeast led to the deaths of at least 20,000 people and forced some 2.7 million to flee their homes since 2009.

In the video, seen by Reuters, the men are seen seemingly unharmed and sitting crosslegged on a red floor in front of a patterned wall. The video was obtained by Sahara Reporters, a U.S.-based journalism website.

The University of Maiduguri confirmed the three men in the video were their staff members. It also released a photo of them late on Friday.

“I want to advise that the use of excessive force is not the solution. “We want to call on the federal government to meet this demand and, as promised, they will release us immediately,” said one of the men, who identified himself as a lecturer at the university.

The jihadist group split last year, with one faction led by Abubakar Shekau operating from the Sambisa Forest — a vast woodland area in the northeast — and the other, allied to Islamic State and led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, based in the Lake Chad region where the search for oil took place.

“I want to call the acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, to come to our rescue to meet the demand of soldiers of calipha under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Barnawi,” said the same man in the four-and-a-half minute video.

Acting President Yemi Osinbajo on Thursday dispatched military chiefs to the northeast to help regain control of the situation after insurgents have launched attacks with renewed zeal in the past few months.

The state oil company, which contracted university staff, has for more than a year surveyed what it says may be vast oil reserves in the Lake Chad Basin.

It wants to reduce its reliance on the southern Niger Delta energy hub, which last year was hit by militant attacks on oil facilities.

(Reporting by Ardo Abdullahi and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Additional reporting by Ahmed Kingimi; Writing by Paul Carsten and Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Parents of kidnapped U.S. journalist Tice renew plea for release

Debra Tice, the mother of American journalist Austin Tice, holds his picture with her husband Marc Tice during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The parents of a U.S. journalist kidnapped in Syria nearly five years ago issued a new plea for his release on Thursday.

Austin Tice, a freelance reporter and former U.S. Marine from Houston, Texas, was kidnapped in August 2012 aged 31 while reporting in Damascus on the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The identity of his captors is not known, and there has been no claim of responsibility for his abduction. The family believe he is alive and still being held captive.

“We are willing to engage with any government, any group, any individual who can help us in this effort to secure Austin’s safe release,” his father Marc Tice said at a news conference in Beirut.

“When any journalist is silenced, we’re all blindfolded.”

His mother Debra Tice added: “Five years is a very long time for any parent to be missing their child … we desperately want him to come home.”

Nothing has been heard publicly about Tice since a video posted online weeks after he disappeared showed him in the custody of armed men.

U.S. officials and Tice’s parents do not think he is held by Islamic State, which typically announces its Western captives in propaganda videos and executed two U.S. journalists in 2014.

The Assad government says it does not know his whereabouts.

(Reporting by John Davison, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Companies use kidnap insurance to guard against ransomware attacks

FILE PHOTO: A screenshot shows a WannaCry ransomware demand, provided by cyber security firm Symantec, in Mountain View, California, U.S. May 15, 2017. Courtesy of Symantec/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Suzanne Barlyn and Carolyn Cohn

NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) – Companies without cyber insurance are dusting off policies covering kidnap, ransom and extortion in the world’s political hotspots to recoup losses caused by ransomware viruses such as “WannaCry”, insurers say.

Cyber insurance can be expensive to buy and is not widely used outside the United States, with one insurer previously describing the cost as $100,000 for $10 million in data breach insurance.

Some companies do not even consider it because they do not think they are targets.

The kidnap policies, known as K&R coverage, are typically used by multinational companies looking to protect their staff in areas where violence related to oil and mining operations is common, such as parts of Africa and Latin America. Companies could also tap them to cover losses following the WannaCry attack, which used malicious software, known as ransomware, to lock up more than 200,000 computers in more than 150 countries, and demand payments to free them up. Pay-outs on K&R for ransomware attacks may be lower and the policies less suitable than those offered by traditional cyber insurance, insurers say.

“There will be some creative forensic lawyers who will be looking at policies,” said Patrick Gage, chief underwriting officer at CNA Hardy, a specialist commercial insurer, in London.

He added, however, that given that K&R policies are geared towards a threat to lives, “our absolute preference is that people buy specific cover, rather than relying on insurance coverage that is not specific”.

American International Group Inc, Hiscox Ltd and the Travelers Companies Inc have been receiving ransomware claims from some customers with K&R policies as ransomware attacks become more common, the companies said.

The insurers declined to comment on total claims, citing confidentiality and client security concerns.

“We are seeing claims (over the past 18 months) but not a huge uptick,” a Hiscox spokeswoman said. “These are within expectations and entirely manageable.”

She declined to say whether the firm had seen any such claims from the WannaCry attacks though Tom Harvey, an expert in cyber risk management at catastrophe modeling firm RMS, said “insurers with kidnap and ransom books will want to look closely at their policy wordings to see whether they are exposed.”

A sharp rise in ransomware attacks in the past 18 months has driven companies to use K&R policies to cover some of their damages if they do not have direct cyber coverage or cannot meet initial cyber policy deductible costs, insurers said.

Symantec Corp,, a cyber security firm based in Mountain View in California, observed over 460,000 ransomware attempts in 2016, up 36 percent from 2015, the company said. The average payment demand ballooned from $294 to $1,077, a 266 percent increase. But as the threat mounts, K&R insurers are at risk from steeper claims than they had anticipated. They are responding by making changes to their policies, which were not designed around ransomware, insurance brokers said. MORE DAMAGING THEN KIDNAPPING Most of the computers affected by WannaCry were outside the United States, where companies have been slow to buy cyber insurance. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s annual cyber insurance premium of $2.5-3 billion comes from the U.S. market, according to insurance broker Aon Plc.

Global companies typically buy K&R policies without ransomware in mind. But instances of high-tech hacks and online ransom demands can hit a company’s business more than an executive being held hostage.

“If your CFO (chief financial officer) gets kidnapped, the company is going to continue to function,” said Bob Parisi, cyber product leader for insurance broker Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc.

“If you get a get a piece of malware in the system, you might have two factories that stop working. The actual damage is probably greater.”

The K&R policies, which typically do not have deductibles, cover the ransom payments as well as crisis response services, including getting in touch with criminal and regulatory authorities, said Kevin Kalinich, global head of Aon’s cyber risk practice.

Still, K&R policies may provide only a quick fix since they were not designed for ransomware. Companies can add coverage for business interruption, but the upper limits for pay-outs are usually lower than for a cyber policy, insurers say.

K&R insurers have been adapting to ransomware-related claims – some are modernizing coverage by setting up Bitcoin accounts for clients to speed up ransom payments, brokers said.

But insurers are mindful of their own risks.

Some have added deductibles, said Anthony Dagostino, head of global cyber risk at Willis Towers Watson PLC advisory and brokerage.

AIG has reduced business interruption coverage available for K&R policies to a $1 million maximum, from much higher and more flexible limits, said Tracie Grella, global head of cyber risk insurance at AIG.

“Insurers didn’t anticipate there would be this much ransomware activity,” Grella said.

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn and Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Carmel Crimmins adn Timothy Heritage)