KENYA: Kidnappings of foreigners at Kenyan resort raise fears
REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Kenya's pristine northern coastal resort of Lamu, hit by kidnappings of foreigners, faces a sharp decline in tourism after the British and French governments issued warnings this past weekend against travel to the region.
The U.S. State Department has had a warning against travel to Lamu since 2009.
Marie Dedieu, 66, a retired French journalist who uses a wheelchair, was kidnapped early Saturday from her house on Manda Island by 10 Somali gunmen, thrown into a boat and taken to Somalia, officials said. Kenyan naval forces exchanged heavy gunfire with the kidnappers but failed to rescue her.
Reuters cited a Somali pirate as saying that Dedieu was being held in Somalia for ransom.
Last month, British tourist Judith Tebbutt, 56, was kidnapped and her husband, David, was killed. Tebbutt was also taken to Somalia by boat.
Kenyan analysts believe that tougher international policing to cut Somali pirate attacks on commercial ships has resulted in pirate groups turning to softer targets, such as poorly guarded hotels and residences in Lamu.
Many tourists left Lamu after Saturday's kidnapping, and hundreds canceled bookings to Lamu hotels, local businessman Abdalla Fadhil told Agence France-Presse. Travelers writing on the website tripadvisor.com said they had pulled the plug on plans to travel to the region.
"You would have to be silly to go right now. Nobody knows if it is safe, so why risk it?" one posted.
Kenyan officials said the government had contacted local Somali leaders to try to negotiate the release of the foreigners.
Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula told the Daily Nation newspaper that the government was willing to pursue Somali gangs and destroy them.
"Even if we have to go across and attack them, I think it's high time for us to teach them a lesson, because they"re destroying our economy, they're destroying our security," Tourism Minister Najib Balala agreed on Kenyan television.
Balala tweeted Monday that he was in Lamu with a delegation of government officials, including the police commissioner and internal-security and naval officials.
"Am on top of it and no worries Government is now doing serious security measures," he tweeted earlier.
Many Lamu residences and hotels are close to the shore, making them easy targets for gunmen in speedboats. Titus Kangangi, the Kenya Hotelkeepers and Caterers Assn. chairman for the coastal region, told the Daily Nation that the organization had urged private cottages in the area to increase their security.
Local tourism business operators said they are angry at the lack of protection from the Kenyan navy and international authorities.
"We want the Kenyan government and international governments to protect us more," hotel owner Muhidin Athman told Reuters during a protest march by local businesses Monday.
The area is popular with wealthy tourists and celebrities. Princess Caroline of Monaco reportedly owns property there, and Sienna Miller and Jude Law have vacationed in the area. Former "X-Files" actress Gillian Anderson married Julian Ozanne on Lamu in 2004, but they later separated.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Tourists visit the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu on Monday. Credit: Thomas Mukoya / Reuters