An Italian priest has been kidnapped at gunpoint in southern Nigeria, Vatican officials have said. Maurizio Pallu was abducted while travelling with four others in Benin City on Thursday 12 October.

The 63-year-old, who has worked in the country for the past three years, was taken by armed men after they attacked and robbed the group. Pallu was the only person kidnapped, with the others let go.

Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, the archbishop of the country's capital Abuja, told a local television channel: "For the moment, we don't have any good news but we are confident and will continue to hope that Father Maurizio will be freed."

He added: "The security forces are doing everything possible to find him."

The archdiocese of Rome expressed "apprehension and worry" for the priest's safety and said the church "was united in prayer" for his liberation.

Chief Vatican spokesman Greg Burke wrote on Twitter on Friday evening: "Pope Francis has been informed about the Italian priest Maurizio Pallu kidnapped in Nigeria and he is praying for him."

Kidnappings for ransom are common in Nigeria, with ordinary residents and even schoolchildren targeted as well as foreigners. Victims are usually freed unharmed after a ransom is paid, though security forces have resorted to rescuing a few high-profile abductees.

Pallu had worked as a lay missionary before entering a seminary in Rome in 1988, Italian newspaper Avvenire reported. He was later a parish priest in the Dutch city of Haarlem before being assigned to the archdiocese in Abuja.

Other foreigners kidnapped in the West African nation this year include two German archaeologists, who were freed by their captors, and two Turkish nationals, whom local police said they rescued.

Christmas eve pope francis
Pope Francis kneels as he leads the Christmas night Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican December 24, 2016 REUTERS/Tony Gentile