Maiduguri, Nigeria - The fate of a French family kidnapped in Cameroon remained uncertain on Thursday after a Cameroonian minister denied they were free and a French minister backtracked on his claim they had been found alive.
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 they had been found safe and well in Nigeria.
“They were found abandoned in a house in Dikwa” in northern Nigeria, about 100 kilometres from the border with Cameroon, the source said.
France's Veteran Affairs Minister Kader Arif confirmed that information but later said he had merely been passing on media reports and said that “there is no official confirmation at this stage”.
Cameroon's Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary bluntly stated: “It is a wild rumour. If this was true, the Cameroonian government would have already given the information to France.”
France's foreign ministry said it could not confirm the release and warned against “spreading premature information”. A security source close to the case in Nigeria said there were “serious doubts” about whether the family had been freed.
The family was snatched on Tuesday by six armed suspected Islamists on three motorbikes. Officials said they were taken across the border into Nigeria.
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 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.
The ministry 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.