Thursday, 14 November 2013

French priest kidnapped in Cameroon's restive north

French priest kidnapped in Cameroon's restive north
Armed men abducted a French priest in northern Cameroon, officials and witnesses said Thursday, nine months after Nigerian Islamists kidnapped a family in the same border region.

Georges Vandenbeusch, a Roman Catholic priest who moved to the area two years ago, had repeatedly ignored warnings by the French authorities that the region was dangerous.

The French foreign ministry said he was snatched overnight from his parish base near the town of Koza, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the Nigerian border.

"We are working with Cameroonian authorities to secure his release," it said in a statement.

A separate church statement said Vandenbeusch was 42 and had been working in the area, where the Islamist Boko Haram group has operated in the past, since September 2011.

"He had been told several times that the area is dangerous," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told AFP during a visit to Morocco.

"We had expressly advised him not to stay on but he thought he should remain there," Fabius added.

The ministry said it had designated the area, from where seven members of a French family were kidnapped by Boko Haram in February and held hostage for two months, as a dangerous zone prone to militancy and kidnappings.

"Investigations are being conducted to verify the circumstances in which he was kidnapped and to establish the identity of his abductors," it said.

A nun who worked with Vandenbeusch told AFP the priest had been kidnapped from his house in the Nguetchewe by armed men who spoke English.

Although Cameroon is predominantly French-speaking, English is spoken in several areas, notably near the Nigerian frontier.

Vandenbeusch "was kidnapped around 11:00 pm (2200 GMT) by armed men," Sister Francoise told AFP by telephone.

"They spoke English. We think they came on foot. They were not hooded. We do not know what they took from his house. They were alone with him."

She said the kidnappers "asked us for money".

Kidnappers on motorbikes

Another priest, Father Henri Djongyang, said the kidnappers first went to the nuns asking if they had euros and then to the priest's house, less than 100 metres (yards) away.

He said Vandenbeusch was locked in his room but the attackers "smashed open the door and ransacked everything. They were certainly looking for money because the father had a safe in his office. They dragged it to the living room but could not carry it away."

They then took the priest "in the direction of Nigeria," he told Europe 1 radio.

In another interview to Radio France Internationale, he said a young man had seen the kidnappers make the barefooted priest walk through the village before fleeing with him on motorbikes.

"According to a village chief, there were motorcycles that passed through and the moment the motorcyclists crossed the border they shouted with joy," Djongyang said.

The latest kidnapping brings to eight the total number of French hostages held worldwide.

Four others are being held in Syria, one in Nigeria and two in the Sahel region on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert.

In February, a Frenchman employed by gas group Suez in Yaounde was kidnapped together with his wife, their four children and his brother while visiting a national park just miles from the Nigerian border.

They were then taken to neighbouring Nigeria and held by Boko Haram, an Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group blamed for a string of deadly attacks since 2009 in an insurgency in northern Nigeria.

The family was released in April. France denied paying a ransom or launching a military operation to secure their freedom.

Boko Haram has in the past called for the creation of an Islamic state in Nigeria. It is believed to be made up of many different factions, some of them hardcore Islamists who would resist any concessions to Nigeria's secular government. 

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