France denies kidnapped family freed in Cameroon

France on Thursday denied a claim that seven members of a French family kidnapped this week in northern Cameroon by suspected Islamists had been freed.

The Yaounde house of a French family seized in a kidnapping allegedly carried out by Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, seen on February 21, 2013. France on Thursday denied a claim that seven members of a French family kidnapped this week in northern Cameroon by suspected Islamists had been freed.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that it formally "denied the information that the French hostages had been released".

Hopes for the seven members of the family -- a couple, their children aged five, eight, 10 and 12 and an uncle -- were raised when a Cameroonian military source said earlier Thursday they had been found safe and well in Nigeria.

The source said they were found abandoned in a house in Dikwa in northern Nigeria, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the border with Cameroon.

France's Veteran Affairs Minister Kader Arif then confirmed that claim but later said he had merely passed on a media report. Cameroon's Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary bluntly stated that it was "a wild rumour".

The family was snatched Tuesday by six armed suspected Islamists on three motorbikes. Officials said they were taken across the border into Nigeria.

Nigerian defence spokesman Mohammed Yerima also said reports they had been freed were false, adding "We don't even know where they are."

President Francois Hollande condemned the seizure as an "odious" act, saying: "This is the first time that children have been taken hostage in this manner."

The French foreign ministry has urged citizens in the far north of Cameroon "to leave the area as quickly as possible" and advised against travel to areas bordering Nigeria until further notice.

It could not say how many French citizens are believed to be in the north but 6,200 in total are registered as living in Cameroon.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France would not give in to "terrorists," an apparent warning that a ransom would not be considered.

The defence ministry said a team of French gendarmes arrived in Cameroon on Tuesday to help with the probe, adding that they were being "protected by French soldiers".

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pointed the finger at Nigeria's Boko Haram extremist group but said it was not clear whether the kidnapping was linked to France's offensive against Islamist rebels in Mali.

"These are groups that claim the same fundamentalism, who use the same methods, whether it's in Mali, Somalia or Nigeria," he said.

Nigerian officials declined to comment on Boko Haram's alleged involvement.

While French officials have named Boko Haram as the likely culprits, a splinter faction of the group known as Ansaru, which has risen in prominence in recent weeks, appears to have prioritised Western hostages.

Ansaru claimed the December kidnapping of a French national in Nigeria's northern Katsina state and the abduction of seven foreigners from a construction site in the north's Bauchi state at the weekend.

In statements, Ansaru has protested France's efforts against Islamist rebels in Mali and warned of further attacks.

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency