NBC News/ Reuters, by Tansa Musa and Bate Felix (Yaounde, Cameroon, Feb. 20, 2013) — French special forces arrived in northern Cameroon on Wednesday to try to help locate a French family of seven, including four children, who were kidnapped by people thought to be Islamist militants and taken into Nigeria, officials in Cameroon said.
The abduction highlights the growing risk of attacks on French nationals and interests in Africa since Paris sent forces into Mali to oust Islamist rebels occupying the country’s north.
Speaking on French television, Joseph Dion Ngute, a junior minister at the foreign ministry, said the kidnappers had put the hostages on motorcycles after their car broke down.
“They then took another woman hostage with her car and fled into Nigeria,” he said. “Our forces and the Nigerian forces were alerted, but before they reacted the kidnappers had vanished.”
It was not clear what had happened to the additional female hostage.
Security in the Dabanga area, six miles from the Nigerian border, where they were taken has been reinforced and “urgent measures” to locate the family have been put in place, he said.
It is the first case of foreigners being seized in the mostly Muslim north of Cameroon, a former French colony. But the region — like others in West and North Africa with typically porous borders — is considered to be within the operational sphere of Nigerian Islamist militant groups Boko Haram and Ansaru.
The father of the family, which included four children ages 5 to 12, worked for utility firm GDF Suez. French television reported that the father was from a family of winemakers in the Burgundy region.
Nigerian army spokesman Col. Sagir Musa said the armed forces were on alert, “ready to apprehend any criminal elements or terrorists that come into our areas.”
France has about 6,000 nationals in Cameroon. It issued a travel warning on Tuesday advising its citizens not to travel to the extreme north and for those already there to leave.
Cameroon is a largely secular state where 70 percent are Christian. About 24 percent are Muslim and mainly live in the three northern regions of the country. Until now there have been no known links between with Islamists in northern Nigeria.
Boko Haram poses a big threat to stability in Nigeria, Africa’s top oil-producing state. Western governments worry they could link up with other Islamist groups in the region.
France intervened in Mali last month after Islamists seized the north and pushed south towards the capital Bamako. French-led forces have since driven the Islamists from north Mali towns into remote desert and mountains.
“It’s these groups that are calling for the same fundamentalism, whether it’s in Mali or in Somalia or in Nigeria. These groups threaten our security,” Le Drian said.
French President Francois Hollande said the kidnappings would not stop France from pursuing its operation in Mali.
The kidnapping brought the number of French held hostage in isolated regions of west and north Africa to 15, including one abducted by Nigerian al Qaeda-linked Ansaru in December.
(Reporting by Bate Felix; Additional reporting by John Irish in Dakar, Alexandria Sage and Leigh Thomas in Paris and Joe Brock in Abuja; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Jason Webb)