French priest kidnapped in Cameroon's restive north

YAOUNDE - A French priest was kidnapped overnight near Cameroon's border with Nigeria in an area designated as dangerous for foreigners, French authorities said on Thursday.

Georges Vandenbeusch was abducted near the town of Koza, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Nigeria, the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

"We are working with Cameroonian authorities to secure his release," it said.

A separate church statement said Vandenbeusch was 42 years old and had been working in the area since September 2011.

The ministry said it had designated the area, from where seven members of a French family were kidnapped by Islamist militants in February and held hostage for two months, as a dangerous zone.

Although it had put out a travel advisory, the Roman Catholic priest "chose to remain in his parish to carry out his work," the statement said.

"Investigations are being conducted to verify the circumstances in which he was kidnapped and to establish the identity of his abductors," it said.

Vandenbeusch's church is located in Nguetchewe, also close to the Nigerian border.

A nun who worked with Vandenbeusch told AFP the priest had been kidnapped from his house by armed men who spoke English.

Although Cameroon is predominantly French-speaking, English is spoken in several areas, notably near the Nigerian frontier.

Vandendeusch "was kidnapped around 11:00 pm (2200 GMT) by armed men," Sister Francoise told AFP by telephone.

"They spoke English. We think they came on foot. They were not hooded. We do not know what they took from his house. They were alone with him." She said the kidnappers "asked us for money".

The latest kidnapping brings to eight the total number of French hostages held worldwide.

Four others are being held in Syria, one in Nigeria and two in the Sahel region on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert.

In February, seven members of the Moulin-Fournier family were kidnapped in Cameroon while visiting a national park just miles from the Nigerian border.

They were then taken to neighbouring Nigeria and held by Boko Haram, an Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group blamed for a string of deadly attacks since 2009 in an insurgency in northern Nigeria.

The family was released in April. France denied paying ransom or launching a military operation to secure their freedom.

Boko Haram has in the past called for the creation of an Islamic state in Nigeria. It is believed to be made up of many different factions, some of them hardcore Islamists who would resist any concessions to Nigeria's secular government.