Kenya holds man in connection with Frenchwoman's kidnap

3rd October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Kenyan police questioned Monday an employee of a disabled Frenchwoman kidnapped from her beachfront home in the idyllic resort of Lamu at the weekend and taken to nearby Somalia.

A gang of 10 armed men seized Marie Dedieu, 66, early Saturday from her 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, the second of a foreign visitor in the area in less than one month, sparked an immediate exodus of visitors in a heavy blow to Kenya's tourism industry.

"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.

Kenyan officials suspect Al-Shebab, the Somali Islamist insurgent group that is battling the Western-backed Somali government of responsibility.

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.

Dedieu, who needs a wheelchair to move around 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".

Abdul Alim, a close friend of Dedieu who works on Lamu, said her staff told him the kidnappers had dragged their employer over sand and stones and then "dumped her in the boat like a sack."

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.

"We arrived last night and we're not cancelling our stay," said Jing Kong, one of a group of six Chinese tourists.

"I'm a bit worried, but Kenya as a whole is not as safe as Japan or Europe, so there is necessarily an element of risk."

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.

Holidaymakers to Kenya often combine a game-viewing safari in a national park with a stay in the Lamu archipelago.

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.

© 2011 AFP

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