Nigeria in 'massive manhunt' for kidnapped French family

22nd February 2013, Comments 0 comments

Nigerian security forces were in a "massive manhunt" on Friday for seven members of a kidnapped French family after Paris said the abductors had likely separated the victims into two groups.

Few details emerged on the precise location of the family, which includes two parents, four children aged 5 to 12 and an uncle, after their Tuesday kidnapping in the neighbouring West African nation of Cameroon.

Cameroon authorities said the victims, who were visiting a national park at the time, were taken over the border into Nigeria's restive northeast after being abducted.

"As long as there are rumours of their cross-border movements, then security agencies must be intensely searching for them," police spokesman Frank Mba told AFP, adding that there was a "massive manhunt."

A security official in Nigeria's northeast, where criminal gangs and insurgents from Islamist extremist group Boko Haram have long operated, said "we are not relenting in efforts to release them."

He said areas around the Cameroon border were particularly being searched. Border crossings in that area are porous, with the frontiers for Chad and Niger also nearby.

The victims had not yet been spotted, the official said.

On Thursday, French President Francois Hollande said that the family was probably being held in two groups.

"We are fully cooperating with Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities to find the location where our citizens are being held," Hollande told reporters.

"For the moment the best thing is to work with some discretion, to first of all identify the exact place where our citizens are being held, probably in two groups, and how we would be able to free them under the best conditions."

The family, who were based in Cameroon, were visiting the Waza National Park when they were kidnapped. They have been identified as Tanguy Moulin-Fournier and his wife Albane, as well as their four sons, Eloi, Andeol, Mael and Clarence.

Tanguy's brother Cyril Moulin-Fournier was on vacation and with them at the time. The three adults are all around 40 years old.

The family with the exception of the uncle moved to Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, in autumn 2011 when the father got a job there overseeing the construction of a liquid natural gas plant. The uncle lives in Barcelona, Spain.

"It's difficult because these are good people," said one of the guards at their home in Yaounde. "We didn't have an employer-employee relationship, they were family."

The Nigerian security official had earlier said "intelligence reports have shown that the abductors may be holding their victims ... around the Dikwa area," referring to a town in northeast Nigeria.

Hollande has condemned the seizure as an "odious" act, saying: "This is the first time that children have been taken hostage in this manner."

The French foreign ministry has urged citizens in the far north of Cameroon to leave the area as quickly as possible and advised against travel to areas bordering Nigeria until further notice.

It could not say how many French citizens are believed to be in the north but 6,200 in total are registered as living in Cameroon.

France had already strongly advised its citizens against travel to northern Nigeria, which has seen violence linked to Boko Haram's insurgency for several years and where a Frenchman was kidnapped in December.

The defence ministry said a team of French gendarmes had arrived in Cameroon on Tuesday to help with the probe, adding that they were being "protected by French soldiers".

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pointed the finger at Boko Haram but said it was not clear whether the kidnapping was linked to France's offensive against Islamist rebels in Mali.

"These are groups that claim the same fundamentalism, who use the same methods, whether it's in Mali, Somalia or Nigeria," he said.

While French officials have named Boko Haram as the likely culprits, a splinter faction of the group known as Ansaru, which has risen in prominence in recent weeks, appears to have focused specifically on targeting foreign hostages.

Ansaru claimed the December kidnapping of a French national in northern Nigeria and the abduction of seven foreigners from a construction site in Bauchi state at the weekend.

In statements, Ansaru has protested against France's efforts against Islamist rebels in Mali among other issues.

Other analysts have said a criminal group may be behind the abduction with the intent of selling the hostages or collecting ransom.

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© 2013 AFP

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