MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenyan coastguards were locked in a high-seas standoff on Saturday with gunmen holding a disabled French woman hostage and the abductors fired warning shots in the air, a government minister said.
The victim's Kenyan boyfriend, John Lepapa, said six masked gunmen brandishing assault rifles stormed their beach house on Manda island under the cover of darkness, forcing the couple and their staff to lie face to the floor.
The gunmen then grabbed the wheelchair-bound woman and carried her to a waiting boat, in the second abduction of a foreign visitor in three weeks.
Tourism Minister Najib Balala said the face-off was taking place near the border with Somalia and the bandits were firing into the air to scare off the ships and a circling aircraft.
"Two boats of the Kenyan coastguard have surrounded the boat on which the gunmen and woman are," Balala told Reuters. "Our fear is if we do drown the boat we will drown the woman."
Analysts and diplomats in the region warned earlier in the year that Somali pirates were likely to turn to softer targets, such as tourists in Kenya, in response to much more robust defense of merchant vessels by private security guards.
The attacks risk dealing a blow to Kenyan tourism which had been recovering from post election violence and the global financial crisis.
Lepapa, 39, and a close associate of the couple said the hostage had been battling cancer and was without much-needed medication.
Lepapa told Reuters he and his partner had returned two days earlier from France, where they spend part of the year. The raid appeared well planned, he said.
"All they were saying was 'where is the foreigner, where is the foreigner'," he said, adding that he had been questioned by counter-terrorism police several hours after the attack.
"My girlfriend pleaded with them and told them to take whatever they wanted from the house, including the money and to spare her life," said Lepapa. "But they would not listen."
The latest kidnapping on the Lamu archipelago by gunmen with links to Somalia has heightened fears that organized criminal networks across the border are widening their reach.
France advised on Saturday against all travel to the archipelago's palm-fringed islands and warned against sailing along Kenya's coast due to the high risk of pirates, underscoring the blow-back the key economic sector can expect.
"I can confirm that she was kidnapped by gunmen in all likelihood from Somalia," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. "Naturally, we are doing everything with the Kenyan authorities to find our compatriot."
Before Saturday's kidnapping, France had eight nationals held captive overseas, among them three aid workers in Yemen, four citizens in the Sahel region and one other in Somalia.
John Steed, a military adviser to the United Nations in Nairobi, described the situation as a "hostage rescue" scenario.
"In any hostage rescue there's an element of risk. But given it's a small boat with only six to nine gunmen on board, they have to surrender. So it's a question of wearing them down," Steed said.
TOURISM TO TAKE A BEATING?
In early September, gunmen attacked British tourists at a camp resort a short speedboat ride away from Lamu, killing the man and kidnapping his wife.
Somali pirates said she was being held in Somalia. The al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab militant group controls large chunks of the lawless country's south and central regions.
The U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, has warned of a growing link between Somalia's pirates and militants.
The violent raid will intensify pressure on Kenya to beef up security along its porous frontier with Somalia and in the open waters off the Horn of Africa country.
Saturday's kidnapping took place on Manda island, across a narrow water channel from Lamu, one of the pearls of the east African country's tourism sector where tourists snorkel and bask in the sun and dhows meander lazily down the Indian Ocean.
Already under threat from government plans to build a world-class $23 billion port nearby, hotel and restaurant operators fear mounting insecurity will ruin tourism.
"If this goes on, we might be forced to close the hotel. Maybe next time they will attack this side of the island," said Gabriel Kombe, assistant manager at Lamu's Sunsail Hotel, adding that bookings had already been canceled after the kidnapping of Judith Tebbutt on September 11.
"The government needs to put more security on the border and in the waters," he said.
Kenya said it would be uncompromising in defending its territory.
"The Government would like to send a strong warning to those bent on undermining Kenya's security from within or without that they will be firmly dealt with by our security forces," said a government statement.
(Additional reporting Richard Lough and Yara Bayoumy in Nairobi and John Irish in Paris; writing by Richard Lough)
Mochila insert follows.