NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Suspected Somali pirates driving their boat under the cover of darkness kidnapped an elderly Frenchwoman on a resort island in northern Kenya early Saturday, officials said. The woman often uses a wheelchair, according to the resident.
The Kenyan navy and police were chasing the suspected boat at sea, said Ambrose Munyasia, a top police official on the coast.
Two Kenyan boats have the suspected pirate boat surrounded, with four men and the kidnapped woman on board, said Tourism Minister Najib Balala. A plane overhead is also monitoring the situation, he said.
"We are just concerned about the safety of the lady," said Balala. He identified her as Marie Dedieu.
Munyasia said that he had information that the French government is set to join the chase. He said he was optimistic the woman would be rescued soon.
The French Foreign ministry said in a statement that the woman is in her 60s and was taken by several men who are "most likely from Somalia."
The ministry said they are "working with the Kenyan authorities, who have mobilized significant air and sea resources in order to free our compatriot."
If pirates are involved, it would be the second such attack near the popular tourist town of Lamu in a month. In early September, pirates shot dead a British man and kidnapped his wife from a resort near Lamu.
People near the scene of the kidnapping heard gunshots around 3 a.m., Lamu resident Muhidin Athman said. Athman said the Frenchwoman owns a house on Manda Island and lives there half the year. She gets around with the help of a wheelchair or personal assistants, Athman said.
Police were at the scene Saturday morning.
Manda Island is just across the channel from Lamu, an old resort town. Two kidnappings within a month have the potential to greatly harm the tourist trade in the area just before the busy holiday season.
Pirates once focused primarily on big ships at sea, but in recent years have also attacked private yachts, capturing Europeans or Americans on private trips.
As U.S. and European navies have increased their patrols of the Indian Ocean, and as large ships have increased their on-board defenses, pirates may be looking for easier targets to keep ransom payments coming in.
Pirates kidnapped and held a British couple — the Chandlers — for more than a year.
"It's profit-motived action. As we know the British couple we captured before paid huge ransoms, so sometimes these targets are a big gain that gives you more than ships," a man who identified himself as a pirate commander named Bile Hussein told The Associated Press last week.
Associated Press reporters Tom Odula and Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Maureen Mudi in Mombasa, Kenya, and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed. Houreld contributed from London.