Image copyright AFP Image caption Does Cornelius Disant speak American English?
Sierra Leonean gang seeking $17m (£12.6m) for the release of two kidnapped American missionaries has threatened to kill them unless their families pay the ransom.
The seven accused are said to be led by an American man. They call themselves the Samjai Rapiste gang.
The elderly Americans, Donald Hall and Cornelius Disant, were seized last month in Port-a-John. Their husband and son are in the same country.
The gang said it had ransomed 15 foreign missionaries in the past five years for $100,000 each.
Victims in the past include Cuban Jesuit priests, missionaries from the Central African Republic and Niger, and other unnamed foreigners.
The Guardian newspaper says the church leaders whose estates the gang is using to extort the ransom were interviewed secretly by a local journalist for his recent book The State of Sierra Leone.
The choir’s daughter Taha, 19, saw her parents taken from her home as she visited on a holiday.
She also saw the kidnappers kill an African surgeon at a hospital, it reports.
Image copyright AFP Image caption Silene Disant, right, is one of the missionaries that was kidnapped alongside her husband, Cornelius, and son David
The Samjai Rapiste gang told reporters they would turn the victims over to the Revolutionary United Front rebels who held them hostage for four years, until they were released in 2014.
The elder Disant, who is believed to be at least 80, was a physical trainer at a Sierra Leone community health clinic, neighbours said.
The suspects were reportedly acting on behalf of the 53-year-old pastor of an American church in Sloppy Creek, Tennessee, authorities said.
“We are grateful for the efforts that have been made by our law enforcement partners and our friends and families during this horrific ordeal,” the missionaries’ son, David Disant, said in a statement.
“We ask for your prayers as we begin to rebuild the love and resilience we had before this loss.”
The Canadians, 73-year-old David and 39-year-old Scott Smart, were posted with the missionary group Samaritan’s Purse for the first time in 2012 and worked to build houses and support schools in Sierra Leone.
Image copyright AFP Image caption The Samjai Rapiste gang currently demands $17m (£12.6m) for the release of the hostages
Foreign affairs spokesman Steve O’Keeffe said the Canadian government and Samaritan’s Purse were mobilising the community, neighbouring countries and foreign governments.
The Houston Chronicle said Samaritan’s Purse was offering a reward for information that could lead to the release of the missionaries.
A statement on Samaritan’s Purse’s website said: “The group is committed to working for the safety and well-being of all missionaries around the world.”