Kenya assures on safety after Frenchwoman's kidnap

3rd October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Kenyan authorities promised Monday to boost security after the second kidnapping of a foreigner in less than a month from an idyllic coastal region, damaging the key tourist industry.

Internal Security Minister George Saitoti said police numbers would be increased around hotels in the eastern Lamu archipelago, where disabled Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu was kidnapped early Saturday and taken to neighbouring war-torn Somalia.

"There will be more police presence in the area, and we are not going to tolerate these insurgents," Saitoti told reporters.

A gang of 10 armed men seized Dedieu, 66, from her beachfront home on Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago, and fled by sea, fighting off an attempt by Kenya's navy to stop them.

The kidnapping sparked an immediate exodus of worried visitors, but Tourism Minister Najib Balala said Kenya was capable of defending its territory and pleaded for calm.

"An emotional reaction is not going to help to solve the issue," he told reporters. "The minute you close down, you create a panic."

However, police chief Mathew Iteere warned that ensuring proper security in the region's resorts is no easy task.

"There are 252 hotels and a bit over 2,000 villas and cottages on the coast, it is almost impossible to have static security for all of them," he said.

Kenyan officials suspect that Somali Islamist Shebab insurgents for the abduction.

A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to AFP, said Kenya had "already sent envoys to Somalia to establish contact with the abductors" but the talks would likely take time.

An employee of Dedieu has been detained for questioning.

"The man we have in custody was working at the womans home and he is assisting us with the investigation," said a police source who asked not to be identified.

"There are aspects we want him to clarify to us because he is crucial in this investigation," the officer added.

Dedieu, who needs a wheelchair to move around following a car accident and is on several types of medication, has lived for the past 15 years in the Lamu archipelago, off Kenya's northern coast.

Her companion, John Lepapa, a 39-year-old Kenyan who was present during the attack and said he was shot at, told AFP that six assailants landed, leaving four waiting in a boat, and "they all had guns".

Kenya said its forces gave chase, dispatching a helicopter and coastguard vessels to catch the kidnappers as they made their way by speedboat to Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia but failing to apprehend them in time.

The majority of tourists on Manda packed their bags and left immediately, and those encountered Monday on Lamu admitted they were nervous.

"When I heard for the first time about the Kiwayu kidnapping I told myself it could happen anywhere, but now I don't feel safe," said Carme Ruestes, a 42-year-old Spanish woman on a round-the-world trip.

"There are no police at night and it's a problem," said 27-year-old Sara Lopez, noting that police officers are often drunk at the weekend.

Dedieu and Lepapa had just returned from France on Wednesday, and the timing of the attack has aroused suspicions that the gang may have been tipped off about their return.

A British tourist, Judith Tebbutt, was seized to the north of Lamu and taken to Somalia on September 11 by an armed gang who killed her husband.

She is believed to have been sold to pirates now holding her in central Somalia.

The security forces had insisted that the first attack, for which two Kenyans have been charged, was an isolated incident.

The latest kidnapping prompted France and Britain to warn travellers to avoid not only Somalia but the nearby Kenyan coastline as well, to the dismay of Lamu's hotel and tour operators.

The tourism sector, a key component of Kenya's economy along with tea and horticulture, took a hammering in 2008 after post election violence that left some 1,300 dead and displaced tens of thousands.

More than a million tourists visited the country in 2010, bringing in 76.3 billion Kenyan shillings (570 million euros).

Dedieu's home lies across a narrow lagoon from Shela, a town on the isle of Lamu popular with the rich and famous, including Monaco's Princess Caroline, who owns property there.

Reports from Paris described Dedieu as a feisty defender of women's rights during the 1970s, co-founding France's national women's liberation movement and signing a manifesto by 343 women who confessed to having an illegal abortion.

© 2011 AFP

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