PARIS (AP) — A French priest was kidnapped from his northern Cameroon parish home by heavily armed men in a region where the radical Islamic sect Boko Haram operates, eyewitnesses and French officials said Thursday.
The gunmen fired into the air as they fled on motorbikes with their captive, one witness said. Georges Vandenbeusch was kidnapped in the region of Koza, in the extreme north of the country, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the border with Nigeria. The zone has been flagged as a risk for terrorism and kidnapping, but the priest chose to stay on to "exercise his mission," the French Foreign Ministry said.
The ministry said it was trying to verify the identity of the gunmen and circumstances of the kidnapping, which eye witnesses said happened late Wednesday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the deputy prefect of the region, Ouhe Kolande, said Boko Haram was suspected.
The group has waged a campaign of bombings and shootings across Nigeria's north. They are held responsible for more than 790 deaths last year, and many dozens more this year. Earlier this year a French expatriate family with four young children were kidnapped at gunpoint in Cameroon's far north and held for two months by Boko Haram, reportedly in neighboring Nigeria.
"For some time now they've been attacking Christians in the area," Kolonde said. A nun at the compound said the kidnappers were looking for money. Sister Francoise Mukarabayire said there were 12 armed and masked men came inside, dressed in civilian clothing, and a dozen more were outside. Another witness said they came on motorbikes.
"Around 11 p.m. I heard someone knocking on the door. I didn't open it. A few seconds later they broke the window and opened the door. They asked for money. They looked around and took some valuables and then they left," Sister Francoise said.
The nuns then went to the home of Vandenbeusch, and "we saw that the door was broken and that he had disappeared. We suppose that the bandits went there first before coming to us." Neighbor Adji Maloum, present at the scene, said the gunmen spoke both English and Hausa, a widely spoken regional language, and said it was hard to tell if they were bandits or Boko Haram members.
"As we came out to see what was happening, the attackers dragged the priest onto one of their bikes and sped off, shooting in the air to keep us off," Maloum said. The kidnapping comes less than two weeks after two French journalists were kidnapped and shot to death in northern Mali. Late last moth, four French hostages held for three years in northern Mali by al-Qaida were freed.
Interconnections between various radical groups have been suspected. The North African branch of al-Qaida has in the past offered funds and training to Boko Haram. On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a conference in Rabat, Morocco, that Boko Haram had trained with AQIM in northern Mali.
The al-Qaida branch has called for attacks on French targets in retaliation for France's January intervention in Mali to rout out radicals who controlled the north. Meanwhile in northern Mali, Governor Adama Kamissoko said Thursday that Tuareg rebels had kept their promise to vacate administrative buildings and the local radio station in the troubled city of Kidal.
Like other cities in northern Mali, Kidal fell into the hands of rebel groups following a March 2012 military coup. The city was later retaken by the French-led intervention force.
Anne Mireille Nzouankeu in Yaounde, Cameroon, and by Divine Ntaryike in Douala, Cameroon, and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.