|Written By:Reuters, Posted: Sat, Oct 01, 2011|
Kenyan coastguards have surrounded a boat carrying gunmen and an elderly French woman kidnapped earlier on Saturday from the northern Kenyan coast and the abductors are firing in the air, a government minister said.
The hostage’s Kenyan boyfriend, John Lepapa, said six masked gunmen armed with assault rifles stormed their private beach house on Manda island, first rounding up the staff who they marched at gun-point to the main living quarters.
In what is the second abduction of a foreign visitor in three weeks, the armed gang ordered the 66-year-old French woman, her boyfriend and the house-helps to lie down, face to the floor, before one of the gunmen grabbed the woman and carried her on his shoulders to an awaiting boat.
Minister Najib Balala told Reuters the high-seas standoff was taking place near the border with Somalia and that the armed gang were firing into the air in an attempt to scare off the vessels and a circling aircraft.
“Two boats of the Kenyan coastguard have surrounded the boat on which the gunmen and woman are,” Balala told Reuters.
“Our fear is if we do drown the boat we will drown the woman,” he said, adding that the woman was disabled.
Lepapa, 39, who said he and the victim planned to marry, believed the kidnap was a planned, targeted attack.
“All they were saying was ‘where is the foreigner, where is the foreigner’,” Lepapa told Reuters, adding that he had been questioned by counter-terrorism police several hours after the attack.
Pleading for her life
“My girlfriend pleaded with them and told them to take whatever they wanted from the house, including the money and to spare her life,” said Lepapa.
“But they would not listen.”
This latest kidnapping on the Lamu archipelago by gunmen with links to Somalia has heightened fears that organised criminal networks across the border are increasing their reach.
France said it was assisting the Kenyan authorities.
“I can confirm that she was kidnapped by gunmen in all likelihood from Somalia,” said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. “Naturally, we are doing everything with the Kenyan authorities to find our compatriot.”
Analysts and diplomats in the region warned earlier in the year that Somali pirates were likely to turn softer targets, such as tourists in Kenya, in response to much more robust defence of merchant vessels by private security guards.
The violent raid will intensify pressure on Kenyan authorities to carry out their pledge to beef up security along the country’s porous frontier with Somalia and in the open waters off the lawless Horn of Africa country.
Much of southern Somalia is controlled by the al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab militant group.
In early September, gunmen attacked British tourists at a camp resort a short speedboat ride away from Lamu, killing the man and kidnapping his wife.
Somali pirates said she was being held in Somalia.
Saturday’s kidnapping took place on Manda island, across a narrow water channel from Lamu, one of the pearls of Kenya’s tourism sector where tourists snorkel and bask in the sun and dhows meander lazily down the Indian Ocean.
Already under threat from government’s plans to build a world-class $23 billion port nearby, hotel and restaurant operators fear mounting insecurity will ruin tourism.
“If this goes on, we might be forced to close the hotel. Maybe next time they will attack this side of the island,” said Gabriel Kombe, assistant manager at Lamu’s Sunsail Hotel, adding that bookings had already been cancelled after the first kidnapping.
“The government needs to put more security on the border and in the waters,” he said.
The attacks come at a time when the Kenyan tourism industry was recovering from violence which followed a December 2007 presidential election and the lingering effects of the global financial crisis.
A record number tourists visited Kenya in the first six months of 2011 and government officials said east Africa’s biggest economy was on track to trump record earnings in 2010 of 74 billion shillings.