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France tops world hostage list with latest kidnapping

4 min

France now has the most nationals held hostage in the world, following the kidnapping of an entire French family holidaying in Cameroon on Tuesday. The number of French citizens held in Africa now stands at 15.


The kidnapping of a family holidaying in north Cameroon has brought the total number of French nationals being held hostage abroad to 15. All of them have been taken in Africa over the past three years.

The latest incident makes France the country with the highest number of citizens held hostage in the world, according to the terrorist watchdog IntelCenter. The United States, which comes in second on this inauspicious list, has nine citizens in the hands of hostage-takers worldwide.

Dadanga lies in Cameroon's extreme north, in a narrow strip of land sandwiched between Nigeria and Chad.

The Moulin-Fournier family was abducted near Cameroon’s Waza National Park on Tuesday, only a few kilometres from the Nigerian border. The father was the Director of External Affairs at the French gas company GDF, who had been stationed in Cameroon’s capital of Yaoundé for two years. The seven family members included four children.

Witnesses told Cameroon and French media that Kalashnikov-wielding men seized the family from their car, separated the adults from the children and sped away from the scene on motorcycles. In a statement, Cameroon’s foreign minister said the hostages had been whisked across the border to Nigeria.

Disorganised local police

In the wake of the kidnapping, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hinted on Wednesday that paying a ransom in exchange for the hostages was out of the question.

“We must do the maximum [to free the hostages], but nothing would be worse than giving in,” Fabius said at the country’s National Assembly. “We will not give into terrorist groups."

According to Julie Vandal, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Nigeria’s capital Lagos, French authorities are working flat out to locate the family, but warned that any cooperation with Nigerian police could prove challenging.

“Nigeria’s police force is very disorganised. Moreover, officers are not paid well and are scared because they are often targeted by criminals and terrorist groups,” Vandal added.

Speaking during a visit to Greece on Tuesday, President François Hollande said of the missing family: “We have to show them our solidarity, and we will do everything possible to free them in the coming days.” The French president added that it was more than likely that terrorists were responsible for this latest kidnapping.

Familiar fears

The French president’s speech from Athens was depressingly familiar. This latest abduction almost doubles the number of French citizens held hostage in the West African region. In five separate incidents since September 2010, citizens have disappeared in Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon.

A French engineer was snatched by thirty gunmen in the Nigerian region of Katsina exactly two months ago. At the time, Hollande said al-Qaeda was likely behind the kidnapping and that Paris would “use every measure at its disposable to find him”.

Kidnapping victims are usually kept on the move by their captors to evade the authorities, even crossing national borders. The current whereabouts of the 15 hostages is unknown.

Boko Haram suspected

According to Vandal, the region where the French family was snatched is the traditional fiefdom of the jihadist militant group Boko Haram, but that does not automatically mean the Islamist group is behind the kidnapping.

“Until now, Boko Haram has never engaged in kidnapping citizens. If they did it, it could signal a change in strategy,” Vandal said, who also added that the culprits could also be “ordinary bandits conscious of the potential value of French citizens.”

Recent rescue attempts by French authorities have proved not been positive. A special forces operation to free a hostage in Somalia in January was disastrous, leading to the execution of the hostage and the death of another French soldier.

Earlier this month a former US ambassador to Mali revealed that France paid 17 million dollars in 2010 to free four French hostages captured in Niger who, despite the payment, are still being held by their Islamist kidnappers to this very day.

The French embassy in Cameroon sent text messages to expatriates living in the country on Tuesday night, warning anyone in the northern part of the country to immediately find a safe location.


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