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Gunmen escape with French hostage into Somalia

Oct 1, 2011, 10:24 a.m.
A Kenyan policeman patrols near the beach home of a disabled French woman held hostage in Ras-Kitau on Manda Island in Lamu, October 1, 2011. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By Caroline Mango and Yara Bayoumy

MOMBASA/NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kidnappers escaped into Somalia with an elderly French hostage on Saturday after a gun battle with Kenyan security forces.

Kenya's Tourism Minister Najib Balala told Reuters several of the gang had been wounded and they were holed up on the Somali coast about 25 km (15 miles) from the border with Kenya.

"Now that it is dark it is next to impossible to continue to follow. The moment is lost," said Colonel John Steed, in charge of the U.N.'s counter-piracy unit in Nairobi. "Now it reverts to normal kidnapping negotiations."

The 66-year-old disabled woman was grabbed in the early hours of Saturday from a private house on the island of Manda on Kenya's northern coast.

The victim's Kenyan boyfriend, John Lepapa, said six masked men brandishing assault rifles had stormed their beach house. The wheelchair-bound woman was then carried to a waiting boat in the second abduction of a foreign visitor in three weeks.

"They've crossed the border into Ras Kamboni," Balala said, referring to the southernmost tip of Somalia that is under the control of militia fighters.

"There are two aircraft on top of them monitoring their position." The wounded members of the gang appear to be hampering its ability to move deeper inland, he said.

Earlier, Kenyan coastguards surrounded the kidnappers near the border with Somalia and the bandits fired into the air in an attempt to scare off the two boats and a circling aircraft.

Analysts and diplomats in the region had warned that Somali pirates were likely to turn to softer targets, such as tourists in Kenya, in response to much more robust defense of merchant vessels by private security guards.

"WHERE IS THE FOREIGNER"

Lepapa, 39, and a close associate of the couple said the hostage had been battling cancer and was without her medication.

Lepapa and his partner had returned to the island in the Lamu archipelago two days earlier from France, where they spend part of each year, he told Reuters. The raid appeared well planned, he said.

"All they were saying was 'where is the foreigner, where is the foreigner?'," he said.

"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."

Manda island is one of the pearls of the east African country's tourism sector where visitors snorkel and bask in the sun and dhows meander lazily down the Indian Ocean.

France advised on Saturday against all travel to the archipelago's palm-fringed islands and warned against sailing along Kenya's coast due to the high risk of pirates.

In early September, gunmen attacked British tourists at a camp resort a short speedboat ride away from Lamu, killing a man and kidnapping his wife.

Somali pirates said she was being held in Somalia. The al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab militant group controls large chunks of the lawless country's south and central regions.

The attacks risk harming Kenyan tourism which had been recovering from post-election violence and the global financial crisis.

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