Somali gunman kidnap French woman on Kenya resort island

1st October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Somali gunmen who snatched a disabled 66-year-old Frenchwoman from a Kenyan luxury resort island fled back to Somalia after a shootout with Kenya's navy, officials said Saturday.

The wheelchair-bound woman was taken from her home in Lamu at 3:30 am (0030 GMT) by "10 heavily armed Somali bandits," a government statement said, adding that the gunmen are "suspected" of belonging to Somalia's Shebab Islamist rebels.

When Kenya learned of the attack, "security forces swung into immediate action and pursued the abductors," the statement said.

Kenya dispatched a helicopter and coastguard vessels, which caught up with and surrounded the fleeing gunmen, who were speeding towards Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia, the government said.

"In the ensuing shoot-out between the abductors and the Kenya Navy, several of the abductors were injured but managed to enter" Ras Kamboni, according to the statement, which offered no details on the abducted woman's condition.

The Shebab rebels control large swaths of territory in southern Somalia. The country's weak, Western-backed government is still largely confined to the capital, Mogadishu.

The woman was taken from her home on Manda island, the government said, just across an idyllic lagoon from the celebrity-packed resort island of Lamu, less than a month after a British woman was abducted and her husband killed a few kilometres to the north.

Locals said the unnamed woman was well known in the area, where she spends much of the year. The kidnappers did not take her wheelchair with them.

Ernest Munyi, head of police for the Coast province, told AFP the abductors had forced a man working for the Frenchwoman and living nearby to take them to his employer.

"The gang knocked on the door of the house help who stays in an adjacent house and when he resisted, they forced themselves in. They then directed him to take them to the house of their boss, which he did," he said.

"We were all startled awake because there were gunshots," said Jeremiah Kiptoon, who works on Manda island.

"The dogs were barking and people were screaming... I ran to the place to see what was happening but by the time I got there, the lady was gone."

Manda island is just across a lagoon from Shela, an exclusive resort on Lamu island popular with the rich and famous. Princess Caroline of Monaco owns property there.

The island -- part of the Lamu archipelago on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast -- hosts a luxury hotel and was until recently considered to be one of the safest destinations in the country.

In the wake of Friday's kidnapping France's consulate in Nairobi issued a formal warning to French visitors to avoid the archipelago and the region up to the Somali border.

On September 11, gunmen attacked a British couple in their fifties -- Judith and David Tebbutt -- on holiday north of Lamu.

The Tebbutts, from Bishop's Stortford in southeastern England, were the only guests at the Kiwayu Safari Village, just 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the border with Somalia.

David Tebbutt was shot dead and his wife was captured. She is believed to have been sold on to pirates now holding her in central Somalia.

Somalia has been lawless for two decades after plunging into a bloody civil war with the 1991 ouster of president Mohamed Siad Barre.

Somali pirates frequently seize crew from merchant ships and pleasure craft in the dangerous waters off the conflict-ravaged Horn of Africa and have taken millions of dollars in ransom for their release.

A Briton kidnapped in southern Somalia in 2008, environmental researcher Murray Watson, is still missing.

A French secret service agent has also been held in Somalia for more than two years.

The Lamu archipelago is often included in package holidays to Kenya, together with game-viewing safaris in some of the country's national parks.

Tourism is a key foreign currency earner for Kenya, East Africa's largest economy. The sector had only recently recovered from the violence that had erupted after disputed 2007 polls and scared tourists away.

Following Tebbutt's kidnapping France had warned its citizens to be careful in the region, while Britain advised against all but essential travel to within 60 kilometres (35 miles) of the Somali border, widened from a previous 30 kilometres.

© 2011 AFP

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