PARIS (AP) — A French priest kidnapped by Islamic radicals in northern Cameroon last November after ignoring danger warnings has been set free, President Francois Hollande's office said Tuesday.
Georges Vandenbeusch was kidnapped by heavily armed men on Nov. 13 in the far north of Cameroon, about 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the border with Nigeria. There was never a claim of responsibility, but suspicion fell on the radical Islamic sect Boko Haram which operates in the area, the Koza region, or on Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group responsible for most kidnappings of foreigners there.
The zone has been flagged as a risk for terrorism and kidnapping, but the priest — who cared for Nigerian refugees — chose to stay on to "exercise his mission," the French Foreign Ministry said at the time.
In a statement from his office, the French president thanked authorities in Cameroon and Nigeria for their "relentless" efforts in helping to free the priest. He "particularly" thanked Cameroon President Paul Biya for personally working on the case, but provided no details on how the release was secured.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on BFM-TV that he spoke to Biya regularly during the priest's captivity and the release came early Tuesday — with no ransom paid. Fabius traveled to Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, to bring Vandenbeusch home. The freed priest was expected back in France on Wednesday, New Year's day.
Eyewitnesses said that a group of at least a dozen armed and masked gunmen had burst into the compound where Vandenbeusch lived and whisked him off on a motorbike, firing guns as they sped away. Two days after the priest was snatched, the kidnappers sent a representative to the area to demand the release of captured Boko Haram members, fellow priest Gilbert Pali said at the time.
Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language means "western education is forbidden," has waged a campaign of bombings and shootings across Nigeria's north. The group has been held responsible for more than 790 deaths last year and many dozens more this year.
In April, a French expatriate family with four young children was kidnapped at gunpoint in the same far north region of Cameroon and freed two months later. Then, too, the captors demanded freedom for Boko Haram prisoners in custody in Nigeria and Cameroon, especially women and children.