NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya said on Monday the weekend kidnapping of a French woman was a serious provocation by Somalia’s Islamist al Shabaab group which threatens the east African country’s multi-million dollar tourism industry.
Internal Security Minister George Saitoti also warned that those behind the kidnapping “and all others who are trying to provoke Kenya have made a big mistake and will live to regret it.”
In the second such kidnapping in recent weeks, gunmen stormed the private home of 66-year-old, wheelchair-bound Marie Dedieu on the northern coast island of Manda on Saturday.
They then grabbed and carried her to a waiting boat that crossed into Somalia, where the al Qaeda-allied rebels are in control of large swathes of the south and centre.
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 more robust defence of merchant vessels by private security guards.
Early last month, gunmen attacked British tourists at a camp resort a short speedboat ride away from northern Kenya’s Lamu archipelago, killing a man and kidnapping his wife.
Last week, fighting also erupted on the Somali-Kenyan border, raising pressure on Kenya’s authorities to beef up their defences against cross-border and sea-based attacks which threaten to hit a tourism industry that earned 74 billion shillings in 2010.
“This is a serious provocation on Kenya’s territorial integrity by the al-Shabaab with negative effects on the tourism industry and generally also on our own investment,” Saitoti told reporters.
Saitoti announced increased security measures near Lamu, an island resort town which is about 100 kilometres from the Somali border, including 24-hour aerial surveillance and the deployment of additional navy vessels.
“All entry and departures by boats will be regulated through a common security point,” he said, adding that any speedboats defying orders to stop would be “disabled”, without elaborating on the measures.
Hotel operators fear tourists may cancel their bookings due to governments’ travel warnings, threatening a sector which is a leading foreign exchange earner and employs many Kenyans.
About a 100 people took to the streets of Lamu to protest against the government’s lax security measures and called for greater cooperation with British and French security forces to prevent a repeat of the kidnappings.
“Kenyan police should employ us locals to patrol the water because we can swim and we know the area,” said Pius Ndung‘a, a construction worker who joined the protest in Lamu.
Dedieu’s kidnappers escaped with their hostage after a maritime gun battle with Kenyan security forces, in which Saitoti said two kidnappers had been shot dead.
“The disabled French woman is here and she is very fine, we are keeping her between lower Juba and middle, we are not al Shabaab and we are looking for ransom money,” a former al Shabaab fighter who operates with a pirate group in the southern port town of Kismayu told Reuters.
“We have not agreed how much yet. Some of us are waiting to take her in to a different zone,” he said. Reuters could not independently verify his account.
HOSTAGE “VERY SICK”
Film director Elie Chouraqui, who owns a house near Dedieu, appealed for her friend’s release.
“The kidnappers must understand that she is very sick and needs urgent help,” Chouraqui was quoted in Le Parisien newspaper as saying.
The protesters slammed the government for failing to provide adequate resources to the local navy base.
“It is unbelievable that we have the Kenyan navy base here and yet we don’t even have a boat. We want the Kenyan government and international governments to protect us more,” hotel-owner Muhidin Athman said as he marched by the port.
The demonstrators also urged French and British tourists not to shun the palm-fringed archipelago, despite travel warnings by both governments who have asked their citizens to avoid all but essential travel within 150 km (90 miles) of the Somali border.
“We love France. We love Britain. We want them to stay,” one placard held aloft by a protester said.
France already has eight hostages held overseas, including one in Somalia who is a member of France’s secret service.
On Monday, beaches in the area were empty with one boatman saying he had not ferried any tourists for the last five days.
During a typical high season which runs through October, the white-sand beaches are dotted with tourists who water-ski, snorkel and fish in the turquoise waters and others who stroll along the shore enjoying the Indian Ocean sun.