LAMU // Kenyan police yesterday questioned an employee of a disabled Frenchwoman kidnapped from her beachfront home in the resort of Lamu at the weekend and taken to nearby Somalia.
A gang of 10 armed men seized Marie Dedieu, 66, early on Saturday from her home on Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago and fled by sea, fighting off an attempt by Kenya's navy to stop them.
The kidnapping, the second in the area in less than a month, sparked an immediate exodus of visitors and travel warnings by the British and French governments in a heavy blow to Kenya's tourism industry.
A police source said: "The man we have in custody was working at the woman's home and he is assisting us with the investigation."
Kenyan officials suspect Al Shabab, the Somali Islamist insurgent group that is battling the western-backed Somali government, of responsibility.
A security official said Kenya had "already sent envoys to Somalia to establish contact with the abductors" but the talks would probably take time.
Ms Dedieu, who needs a wheelchair to move around and is on several types of medication, has lived for the past 15 years in the Lamu archipelago.
Her companion, John Lepapa, 39, a Kenyan who was present during the attack and claimed he was shot at, said six attackers landed, leaving four waiting in a boat, and "they all had guns".
Abdul Alim, a close friend of Ms Dedieu who works on Lamu, said her staff told him the kidnappers had dragged their employer over sand and stones and then "dumped her in the boat like a sack".
Kenya said its forces gave chase, dispatching a helicopter and coastguard vessels to catch the kidnappers as they made their way by speedboat to Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia but failing to apprehend them in time.
About a 100 people took to the streets of Lamu yesterday and called for greater cooperation with British and French security forces to prevent a repeat of the kidnappings, which came at the peak of the June-October tourism season.
"Kenyan police should employ us locals to patrol the water because we can swim and we know the area," said Pius Ndung'a, a construction worker at the protest.
The protesters slammed the government for failing to provide adequate resources to the local navy base to carry out a successful rescue.
"It is unbelievable that we have the Kenyan navy base here and yet we don't even have a boat. We want the Kenyan government and international governments to protect us more," Muhidin Athman, a local hotel-owner, said as he marched by the port.
The demonstrators also urged French and British tourists not to shun the palm-fringed archipelago, despite travel warnings by both governments who have asked their citizens to avoid all but essential travel within 150 kilometres of the Somali border.
The majority of tourists on Manda packed their bags and left immediately after the kidnapping, and those remaining on Lamu yesterday admitted they were nervous. "When I heard for the first time about the Kiwayu kidnapping, I told myself it could happen anywhere, but now I don't feel safe," said Carme Ruestes, 42, a Spanish woman on a round-the-world trip.
"There are no police at night and it's a problem," said Sara Lopez, 27, adding that police officers were often drunk at the weekend.
"We arrived last night and we're not cancelling our stay," said Jing Kong, one of a group of six Chinese tourists. "I'm a bit worried, but Kenya as a whole is not as safe as Japan or Europe, so there is necessarily an element of risk."
Ms Dedieu and Mr Lepapa had recently returned from France on Wednesday, and the timing of the attack has aroused suspicions that the gang may have been tipped off about their return.
A British tourist, Judith Tebbutt, was seized to the north of Lamu and taken to Somalia on September 11 by an armed gang who killed her husband.
She is believed to have been sold to pirates now holding her in central Somalia.
The security forces had insisted that the first attack, with which two Kenyans have been charged, was an isolated incident.
The tourism sector, a key component of Kenya's economy along with tea and horticulture, took a hammering in 2008 after election violence that left 1,300 dead and displaced tens of thousands.
More than a million tourists visited the country in 2010, bringing in 76.3 billion Kenyan shillings (Dh2.77bn).
Ms Dedieu's home lies across a narrow lagoon from Shela, a town on the isle of Lamu popular with the rich and famous, including Monaco's Princess Caroline, who owns property there.
* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Reuters