NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) - France said Wednesday that a cancer-stricken quadriplegic Frenchwoman kidnapped off a Kenyan resort island appears to have died in captivity in Somalia, prompting Kenya to call the death an act of terror against the East African nation and France.
Kenya said it sent some 1,600 troops into Somalia last weekend to hunt al-Shabab militants because of the kidnapping of the French woman and three other Europeans from its country over the last six weeks. The nation's tourism minister told The Associated Press that the invasion is meant to push Islamist militants away from Kenya's tourist destinations.
Somali gunmen snatched Marie Dedieu in the middle of the night from her resort island home near Lamu on Oct. 1. The 66-year-old, wheelchair-bound woman suffered from cancer and required special medications several times a day, medicine her captors did not take with them.
French officials said Dedieu's state of health and the fact her kidnappers "probably refused to give her the medication we sent her" likely led to the death. The foreign ministry said her death had not been absolutely confirmed but was the most likely situation.
"We are so, so sad. We have lost a mother of this village. We have not lost a foreigner. We have lost a mother of the community," said Abdullah Fadhil, the property manager at Dedieu's residence in Lamu. "We wish she would be alive but because she has been sick and I know that the captors cannot give her the care she requires ... she has been very weak."
France's Foreign Ministry said that unspecified "contacts" told French officials that Dedieu had died but the date and circumstances of her death were not immediately known. It did not elaborate.
The Kenyan government offered its condolences and said Dedieu died while in al-Shabab captivity. Kenya maintains al-Shabab is behind the recent kidnappings, though some analysts have instead blamed pirates or criminals.
"The kidnapping and detention of Marie Dedieu was a terror act not only against her, but also against Kenya, her home country France and the entire world," the Kenyan government statement said.
After a weekly Cabinet meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Dedieu's death "isn't totally confirmed but is more than probable."
"Madame Dedieu was a gravely ill 66-year-old woman, afflicted with cancer (and) quadriplegic," he said. "Seizing a woman in this state is an act of barbarity."
French officials have demanded that her remains be handed over, and residents in Lamu remembered her as a kind woman.
"She was my friend," said resident Beatrice Halua. "She knew how to live with everyone: good people, bad people. She was a nice person. She had so many friends."
Kenyan military forces, meanwhile, continued their movements into Somalia, in pursuit of al-Shabab militants. Kenya's military claimed that it had killed more than 70 militants, but offered no evidence of that claim.
Kenya's tourism minister, Najib Balala told AP that Kenya sent in troops to push militants back from the country's tourist destinations, like Lamu, because they were creating instability and affecting the economy. Balala said the government was responding to the attacks.
"Security has been upped in the country and we made sure that we don't entertain any unscrupulous characters in our country," Balala said in an interview late Tuesday.
As a result of the kidnappings, Kenya had to revise its marketing strategy to attract tourists. Kenya hoped to earn $1 billion in tourism income this year, Balala said.
He said he is optimistic that the country's tourism will continue the rebound that it's made after being brought to a near standstill during the country's postelection violence in late 2007 and early 2008. Tourism revenues last year exceeded $900 million.
Hugh Regg, a tourist from Australia, visited one of Nairobi's most popular sites on Wednesday - the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust - where visitors can watch orphaned baby elephants being hand-fed by bottle. Regg said he was a nervous before arriving in Kenya because of the recent news, but hasn't had any negative experiences.
A new threat to Kenya emerged on Monday, when al-Shabab threatened to level Kenyan skyscrapers and carry out suicide bomb attacks like ones that killed 76 people in Kampala, Uganda in July 2010. Kenyan police this week sent out a terrorist attack warning and increased security at some downtown sites, including Nairobi's Somali neighborhood.
"Definitely we are not taking these threats lightly but we know they do not have the capacity to do a lot of this talk that they have talked," Balala said.
"I can assure everybody Lamu is safe, Kenya is safe," he added. "It is unfortunate this has happened, it has tainted our image. Too bad. But I believe people who know Kenya, trust me, Kenya is a safe destination."
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