Kenyan police were Monday questioning a man who worked for a disabled Frenchwoman whose kidnapping from her beachfront home in the idyllic resort of Lamu has dealt a blow to the east African country's resurgent tourism industry.
A gang of 10 armed kidnappers seized Marie Dedieu, 66, early Saturday from her home on Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago and are reported to have taken her to Somalia.
The kidnapping is the second in the area in less than one month. A British tourist, Judith Tebbutt, was seized on September 11 to the north of Lamu by an armed gang who killed her husband.
The security forces had insisted that the first attack was an isolated incident.
"The man we have in custody was working at the woman’s home and he is assisting us with the investigation," said a police source who asked not to be identified.
"There are aspects we want him to clarify to us because he is crucial in this investigation," the officer added.
Dedieu, who needs a wheelchair to move around and who is on several types of medication, was taken to war-torn Somalia by her captors, Stephen Ikua, the district commissioner for Lamu told AFP.
"It must have been Al-Shebab," he told AFP, referring to the Somali Islamist insurgent group that is battling the Western-backed Somali government.
Mediators have been sent to secure her release but officials have warned the talks could be lengthy.
Dedieu has lived for the past 15 years in the Lamu archipelago, off Kenya's northern coast.
A Kenyan government statement said she was taken by "10 heavily armed Somali bandits."
Didieu's companion, John Lepapa, a 39-year-old Kenyan who was present during the attack and who said he was shot at, said there were six assailants on land and four waiting in a boat, and "they all had guns".
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.
The majority of tourists on Manda packed their bags and left immediately.
Abdul Alim, a close friend of Dedieu's who works on Lamu, said Dedieu's staff told him the kidnappers had dragged their employer over sand and stones and then "dumped her in the boat like a sack."
A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to AFP, said Kenya had "already sent envoys to Somalia to establish contact with the abductors."
"With negotiations such as this, and considering there is no government on the other side, it may take quite some time ...," the security official said.
She is believed to have been sold to pirates now holding her in central Somalia.
Dedieu and Lepapa had just 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.
Western countries rushed to update their travel advisories and Kenya battled to save its vital tourism industry following the kidnapping.
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.
Holidaymakers to Kenya often combine a game-viewing safari in a national park with a stay in the Lamu archipelago.
The latest kidnapping prompted France and Britain to warn travellers to avoid not only Somalia but the nearby Kenyan coastline as well, to the dismay of Lamu's hotel and tour operators.
The tourism sector, a key component of Kenya's economy, took a hammering in 2008 after the post election violence that left some 1,300 dead and displaced tens of thousands.