YAOUNDE - Cameroon's security forces Sunday were sweeping the remote northern region where two Italian priests and a Canadian nun were kidnapped by suspected Boko Haram gunmen, a local government official said.

‘We are everywhere. We have been on the ground since the abduction,’ local governor Awa Fonka Augustine told AFP without elaborating. The attack occurred overnight Friday in the small parish of Tchere, in the far north of Cameroon across the border from an area of northeastern Nigeria that serves as a base for the Islamist Boko Haram group. Cameroon's Defence Minister Edgard Alain Mebe Ngo'o travelled to the area on Saturday to personally take control of the search operation. ‘All the country's exits (in the far north of Cameroon) were locked down after the kidnapping,’ a security official said on condition of anonymity.

It was unknown whether the priests, named in media reports as Giampaolo Marta and Gianantonio Allegri from the northern Italian city of Vicenza, and Canadian nun Gilberte Bussier are still in Cameroon or whether they have been taken into Nigeria.

Cameroon security forces have blamed the attack on the Boko Haram, which has been implicated in several kidnappings in the past year. Henri Djonyang, head cleric of the Maroua-Mokolo region where the three worked, said he had received no news since Saturday. ‘We are on our way to Tchere to hold a mass to comfort the local people. Everything is in the hands of God. We pray and hope that they will be freed,’ he said.

Kidnappings of Westerners have become common in the remote, insurgency-wracked corner of west Africa, where borders are difficult to control. In November 2013, French Catholic priest Georges Vandenbeusch was seized by heavily armed men who burst into his parish at night and reportedly took him to neighbouring Nigeria in an attack claimed by the Islamist group.