By Flora Bagenal
LAMU, Kenya (Reuters) - Dozens of Kenyans protested Monday against the government's lax security measures after gunmen seized a French hostage and escaped into Somalia, the second incident of its kind in recent weeks which locals fear will hit Kenya's lucrative tourism industry.
Six men armed with assault rifles stormed a private house on the island of Manda on Kenya's northern coast in the early hours of Saturday, grabbed 66-year-old wheelchair-bound Marie Dedieu and carried her to waiting boat that crossed into Somalia.
Analysts and diplomats in the region had warned that Somali pirates were likely to turn to softer targets, such as tourists in Kenya, in response to more robust defense of merchant vessels by private security guards.
About a 100 people took to the streets of Lamu, a sleepy island resort town on the east African country's northern coast, 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 who joined the protest in Lamu, which is about 100 km (60 miles) from the Somali border.
Early last month, gunmen attacked British tourists at a camp resort a short speedboat ride away from Lamu, killing a man and kidnapping his wife. [ID:nL5E7KB0MY]
Last week, fighting also erupted on the Somali-Kenyan border, raising pressure on Kenya's authorities to beef up their defenses against cross-border and sea-based attacks which threaten to devastate a tourism industry that earned 74 billion shillings ($737 million) in 2010.
Hotel operators fears more tourists may cancel their bookings due to their governments' travel warnings, threatening a sector which is a leading foreign exchange earner and employs many Kenyans.
"WE DON'T EVEN HAVE A BOAT"
Dedieu's kidnappers escaped into the southern, rebel-controlled tip of Somalia with their hostage after a maritime gun battle with Kenyan security forces.
"The disabled French woman is here and she is very fine, we are keeping her between lower Juba and middle, we are not al Shabaab and we are looking for ransom money," a former al Shabaab fighter who operates with a pirate group in the southern port town of Kismayu told Reuters.
"We have not agreed how much yet. Some of us are waiting to be take her in to a different zone," he said. Reuters could not independently verify his account.
Film director Elie Chouraqui, who owns a house near Dedieu, appealed for her friend's release.
"The kidnappers must understand that she is very sick and needs urgent help," Chouraqui was quoted in Le Parisien newspaper as saying.
The protesters slammed the government for failing to provide adequate resources to the local navy base to carry out a successful rescue operation.
"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 km (90 miles) of the Somali border.
"We love France. We love Britain. We want them to stay," one placard held aloft by a protester said.
France already has eight hostages held overseas, including one in Somalia who is a member of France's secret service.
Monday, beaches in the area were empty with one boatman saying he had not ferried any tourists for the last five days.
During a typical high season, the white-sand beaches are dotted with tourists who water-ski, snorkel and fish in the turquoise waters and others who stroll along the shore enjoying the Indian Ocean sun.
(Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Yara Bayoumy)