Seven members of a French family, three of them children, have been abducted in Cameroon three days after seven other foreigners were taken away at gunpoint in neighbouring Nigeria, raising fears that Islamist militants have started a campaign of capturing Western hostages in the region.
The attacks come as French forces are engaged in fighting jihadists in Mali, with other western European troops, including British, due to join the mission.
The group kidnapped in Nigeria, one of whom is a UK citizen, are believed to be held by Ansaru, a breakaway faction of the Islamist Boko Haram organisation.
The French president, Francois Hollande, confirmed that the captives in Cameroon “have been taken by a terrorist group that we know and that is in Nigeria. I see the hand of Boko Haram in that part of Cameroon. France is in Mali, and it will continue until its mission is completed," he said.
The French family were seized at around 7am local time at a village near the Waza national park and Lake Chad, a popular tourist destination. Local people say armed men on motorbikes carried out the attack and then headed towards the Nigerian border nearby. This was the first time foreigners had been abducted in Cameroon, and illustrates the porous nature of frontier controls in some parts of the Sahel.
Both Boko Haram and Ansaru have links with al-Qa’ida in the Maghreb (AQAM), which is currently holding eight other French hostages. The group was active in Mali before being driven out recently and its members took part in last month’s assault on an Algerian gas complex.
The hostages are a complicating factor for the West in its latest front against international jihad in West Africa amid evidence that the jihadist groups are co-ordinating their activities. The French operations in Mali were preceded by an attempt to rescue a hostage being held in Somalia. It failed with the Islamist Al-Shabaab organisation announcing that it has executed the prisoner, Dennis Alex.
An Ansaru statement said its actions in revenge for "the transgression and atrocities done to the religion of Allah by the European countries in many places, such as Afghanistan and Mali." On Sunday it’s gunmen snatched foreign workers - Italian, British, Greek and Lebanese - from the compound of the construction company Setraco in northern Nigeria. The group is also holding a French national, named as Francois Colump, who was seized in the northern state of Katsina.
Robert Emerson, a security analyst specialising in counter-insurgency, said “ This is a pretty low risk, high return tactic for the militant groups.. There is a lot of uncertainty in the West about the way the Mali intervention will pan out and Francois Hollande, and now that he has joined him, David Cameron, will face a lot of awkward questions if hostages start getting killed.”