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Africa

French priest alerted embassy before being kidnapped

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-11-16

Father Georges Vandenbeusch had time to alert the French embassy before he was kidnapped by militants in Cameroon overnight Thursday. A local official said he may have been targeted for helping Nigerians fleeing attacks by Boko Haram.

Catholic priest Georges Vandenbeusch had time to alert the French embassy before he was kidnapped by militants in Cameroon late Wednesday, church officials said, as a local governor said Vandenbeusch may have been targeted for helping Nigerians fleeing attacks by Boko Haram into Cameroon.

Some 15 gunmen stormed into the parish church in Nguetchewe, 10 kms (6 miles) from the Nigerian border, to demand money late on Wednesday, Monseigneur Gérard Daucourt, the bishop in Paris responsible for the priest, told a news conference Thursday.

Vandenbeusch, 42, had time to alert the French embassy by phone before the gunmen burst into his private room. His abductors then marched him barefoot across the village before fleeing on motorbikes.

“His suitcase was found on the road to Nigeria with only a chequebook in it,” Daucourt said.

Augustine Fonka Awa, governor of the Far North region, told Reuters that he went to Nguetchewe with security forces to investigate the kidnapping and expressed fears that the priest had been taken across the border into Nigeria.

Awa said Vandenbeusch may have been targeted by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram for sheltering Nigerian refugees who had fled across the border to escape attacks by the group, which often targets churches and schools as well as security posts.

“We suspect that he was being blamed by Boko Haram Islamist rebels for hosting some Nigerian people who escaped the attacks in their country,” Awa said.

Witnesses reported that the kidnappers spoke to each other in English, said Henri Djionyang, the vicar general of Maroua, in an interview with FRANCE 24’s sister station RFI (Radio France Internationale). The Far North province of Cameroon is French-speaking, while English is spoken in Nigeria, which is a former British colony.

Vandenbeusch’s abduction comes nine months after Boko Haram seized a French family in the same lawless area of northern Cameroon before freeing them in April.

French nationals targeted

A French security analyst said that Vandenbeusch may have been targeted, in part, because he was French.

“This was premeditated, targeting a Catholic priest who was French because we are in Mali, and in Mali it’s considered that we are soiling Muslim lands,” said former intelligence officer Louis Caprioli, who now advises for the GEOS private security firm.

Two French journalists who worked for RFI were killed in Mali earlier this month by militants claiming to represent al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, in retaliation for France’s operations in Mali. Security experts have said the killings may have resulted from a botched kidnapping.

Vandenbeusch’s abduction is the latest in a series of attacks on French targets in West Africa since France launched a military intervention in January to oust al Qaeda- and Boko Haram-linked Islamists who had taken over most of northern Mali.

Nigeria has said that the Far North region of Cameroon is being used by Boko Haram militants to transport weapons and hide from a six-month-long military offensive to oust them. Abuja has appealed to Cameroon to tighten security along the border between the two countries.

The United States on Wednesday formally designated Boko Haram and the Nigerian Islamist militant group Ansaru as foreign terrorist organisations, making it a crime for any US national to provide them with material support.

Paris reacts

An official at the Paris prosecutor’s office said an investigation had been opened into “kidnapping and illegal confinement by a group linked to a terrorist organisation” as a result of Vandenbeusch’s abduction.

France’s foreign ministry (Quai d’Orsay) said no group had yet claimed responsibility and that it was trying to establish the identity of the kidnappers. Paris considers the region at high risk for kidnapping and has warned its citizens to leave, but Vandenbeusch had insisted on completing his mission.

Vandenbeusch arrived in Cameroon in 2011, having previously been a priest in the Paris suburb of Sceaux.

“All must be done and all will be done so that he can be freed as quickly as possible,” French President François Hollande said Thursday, speaking during a visit to Monaco.

Hollande has previously denied that any ransom was paid to free the French family of seven kidnapped in Cameroon and released last April. But a confidential Nigerian government report seen by Reuters said that Boko Haram was paid the equivalent of $3.15 million by French and Cameroonian negotiators.

French media reported that a €20 million ransom had also been paid for the four French hostages abducted in Niger in 2010 and freed late last month, an allegation the French government strongly denies.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-11-15

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