YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — A French family of seven — including four children — was kidnapped on Tuesday in northern Cameroon, and officials suggested the involvement of one of Nigeria's Islamic extremist sects.
Military helicopters are being used to search for the tourists, who were abducted from Cameroon's Far North Region, a Cameroonian government official told The Associated Press.
The French gas group GDF Suez identified the captives as an employee working in the Cameroon capital of Yaounde and his family. The group was vacationing in the north, a company statement said without elaborating.
"The three adult tourists and four children were picked up early today (Tuesday) by men riding on motorbikes who rode off toward the border into Nigeria," the Far North Regional Delegate in the Ministry of Forest and Wildlife, Jean-David Ndjigba said from the province's capital of Maroua.
Military and paramilitary gendarmes said the region's Governor Augustin Fonka Awah is in the field accompanying them in the search.
"As I speak to you right now, helicopters are flying over the entire province, and specifically in the administrative area of Waza in search of the kidnapped tourists," Ndjigba said, adding that the vehicle the tourists used has been recovered on the borders flanking Nigeria.
Waza Park, a natural wildlife reserve in the Far North Region attracts mainly foreign tourists. But the area often suffers from raids by bandits lurking in Cameroon, Chad and neighboring Nigeria, who often abduct locals for ransom.
A Cameroonian trader, who insisted on anonymity because he feared for his safety, said that he was driving back from Nigeria and happened upon the scene. The vehicle of the seven French nationals got stuck in the sand, near the town of Dabanga, 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the Nigerian border. A group of armed men on motorbikes sped up, and forced the Europeans to leave their car at gunpoint, he said.
The hostages were taken away despite a crowd of people who were watching, he said. "Nobody could help the white men because the kidnappers were heavily armed and they threatened to shoot anyone that approached," said the trader.
French President Francois Hollande, speaking during a visit to Greece, warned French citizens in West Africa to avoid putting themselves in dangerous situations. Hollande noted that France is engaged in a military campaign in Mali to push out jihadists who had taken control of the north. Terrorists, he said, "are not just in Mali."
A total of 15 French citizens are currently being held in western Africa — in addition to the seven kidnapped in Cameroon, there is one other in Nigeria and seven thought to be in northern Mali.
A French official close to the embassy in Cameroon said the family was believed to have been taken from northern Cameroon to Nigeria, where on Monday a little-known extremist group called Ansaru claimed responsibility for a separate abduction of seven foreigners.
Boko Haram — which means "Western education is sacrilege" — has launched a guerrilla campaign of bombings and shootings across Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north. It is blamed for at least 792 killings last year alone, according to an AP count. It is known to have ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, an Algerian-based group that opened a front in Mali.
"If everything is confirmed, this signifies that the fight against terrorist groups is a necessity," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Paris. "There is a battle to be led by the international community against terrorist groups and narco-terrorists," a reference to the trafficking in drugs, cigarettes and other commodities that has flourished in northern Mali under the extremists.
The latest kidnappings have added to fears of instability and danger toward Westerners. Before Tuesday, there were eight French citizens being held in the region, including one who was taken in Nigeria.
An analysis published Monday by Stratfor, a U.S.-based private global intelligence firm, warned that there likely will be more attacks by Ansaru targeting Westerners and Western interests in Nigeria, as well as neighboring nations.
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet, Lori Hinnant and Elaine Ganley contributed to this report from Paris.