Kidnappers bring disabled French woman to Somalia

2nd October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Gunmen who snatched a disabled 66-year-old French woman from her beachfront home in a prized Kenyan resort have taken her to neighbouring war-torn Somalia, officials said Sunday.

With Kenyan forces obliged to stop their pursuit at the border and officials suspecting Somalia's Al Qaeda-inspired Shebab, chances dimmed of a quick release for the woman, named as Marie Dedieu.

Officials said mediators have been sent to Somalia in a bid to secure the woman's release but admitted talks could be lengthy.

Western countries rushed to update their travel advisories and Kenya battled to save its vital tourism industry following the kidnapping early Saturday, less than a month after a British tourist was abducted from the same area and her husband killed.

"She's already in Somalia. I can confirm that," said Stephen Ikua, the district commissioner for Lamu, the idyllic archipelago on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast where Dedieu, who uses a wheelchair since an accident several years ago, lived.

"It must have been Al-Shebab," he told AFP by phone, referring to the Somali insurgent group which has been battling the Western-backed Somali government for years.

A Kenyan government statement said Dedieu was taken from her home on Manda island by "10 heavily armed Somali bandits."

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.

"In the ensuing shoot-out ... several of the abductors were injured but managed to enter" Ras Kamboni, the statement said, without offering any details on Dedieu's condition.

Abdul Alim, tourism manager at Peponi, one of the foremost hotels in Shela, and a long-time friend of Dedieu, said the coastguard were ill-equipped for such operations.

He said Dedieu's staff had told him the kidnappers had dragged their employer over sand and stones and then "dumped her in the boat like a sack."

"We have not managed to get her back but we have adequately secured the border to ensure it does not happen again," Coast Province police chief Aggrey Adoli told AFP Sunday.

"We have enough forces pursuing the attackers at the border," he said, adding however that Kenyan troops had not crossed into Somalia.

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.

A diplomatic source described Dedieu's house as "relatively modest" and said it lay just a couple of metres from the sea.

The same source described Dedieu as "a very warm person" who was "well integrated with the local population." After initially settling on Lamu some 15 years ago, Dedieu moved to Manda Island about seven years ago and referred to it as her "corner of paradise."

On September 11, gunmen shot and killed British tourist David Tebbutt and abuducted his wife Judith after attacking the couple at a resort a few miles north of Lamu. She is believed to have been sold to pirates now holding her in central Somalia.

The latest kidnapping prompted France and Britain to warn travellers to avoid not only Somalia but the nearby Kenyan coastline as well.

Tourism is a key foreign currency earner for Kenya, East Africa's largest economy.

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

The French consulate in Nairobi issued a formal warning to prospective visitors to avoid the archipelago and the region up to the Somali border.

Britain also issued tougher travel advice for Kenya, warning its nationals against all but essential travel to the Kenyan coast within 150 kilometres (93 miles) of the Somali border, following the attacks on beach resorts in the area.

Shebab rebels control large swathes of southern Somalia, but Ras Kamboni, a former rebel bastion near the Kenyan border, is not currently under the control of any single group.

Abdul Alim said Dedieu needed to take medication every four hours.

"We fear for her health," French foreign affairs spokesman Bernard Valero said in Paris.

Her companion, John Lepapa, a 39-year-old Kenyan who was present during the attack and who said he was shot at, said there were six assailants on land and four waiting in the boat, and "they all had guns".

The couple 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.

© 2011 AFP

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