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Outcry at "failed" response to Kenya kidnappings

Oct 2, 2011, 7:35 a.m.
Kenyan John Lepapa Moyo reacts outside his beach home in Ras-Kitau on Manda Island in Lamu, October 1, 2011. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By Flora Bagenal

LAMU, Kenya (Reuters) - Residents and hotel owners on Kenya's idyllic Lamu archipelago expressed anger on Sunday at what they called their government and Britain's failure to beef up defenses amid an escalating security crisis.

In the second attack on foreign visitors in less than a month, an armed gang with links to neighboring lawless Somalia kidnapped on Saturday a wheelchair-bound French woman from Manda island, the heart of one of Kenya's most popular tourist destinations.

At a heated meeting on the main Lamu island, Stefano Moccia asked a visiting British diplomat: "What has the British government and the Kenyan government done since the first attack? Nothing! You have failed us."

The diplomat, who did not want to be named, told residents the decision to put out a travel warning had not been taken lightly and that it was Britain's priority to act quickly.

Moccia, who runs a hotel next door to where the attackers struck, said he and other tried in vain to contact the police after the abduction.

Another hotel launched its own plane and spotted the kidnappers' skiff heading for Somalia, while the security forces were still scrambling to find a boat, Moccia said.

A third hotel owner who declined to be named said he was contacted by the Kenyan navy to ask if they could borrow his speedboat. He passed on intelligence from the private plane to the army until they launched their own aircraft.

There was no immediate comment from the navy on the failed rescue mission.

MASSIVE CANCELLATIONS

The kidnappers escaped into the southern, rebel-controlled tip of Somalia with the elderly hostage after a high-seas gun battle with Kenyan security forces.

Analysts and diplomats in the region said earlier this year 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.

Late on Saturday, Britain followed France and issued a travel advisory, warning against all but essential travel within 150 km of the Somali border. The area includes all resorts in the palm-fringed Lamu archipelago.

Locals, however, accused London of an inadequate response to the September 11 attack by bandits from Somalia on a British couple in which a man was shot dead and his wife abducted.

Somali pirates say Judith Tebbutt, 56, is being held in Somalia.

Abdullah Sultan, head of a local tour guide association, said hotels had suffered massive cancellations in past weeks.

"The (Kenyan) government has to put more money behind this, they need to react quicker. We need help with this, it's a desperate situation," Sultan told Reuters.

No group has claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack.

Security analysts said further rescue attempts were unlikely now that the armed gang were on land in an area ruled by militia fighters.

(Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)

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