YAOUNDE (Reuters) - The fate of seven French tourists seized in Cameroon by suspected Nigerian Islamist militants was unclear on Thursday after government officials denied French media reports that they had been freed.
The hostages, four children and three adults, were captured this week while on an excursion to the Waza national park near Cameroon’s border with Nigeria.
Several French media reported earlier on Thursday that the hostages had been found alive in a house in northern Nigeria and freed.
“The hostages are safe and sound and are in the hands of Nigerian authorities,” BFMTV quoted a Cameroon army officer as saying.
“This is a crazy rumour that we cannot confirm. We do not know where is it coming from,” Cameroon Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said by telephone from the capital Yaounde.
Sagir Musa, a spokesman for Nigeria’s military, told Reuters the report was “not true.”
Kader Arif, France’s minister for veterans’ affairs, told parliament on Thursday that the seven hostages had been released but retracted his statement minutes later, saying he had been quoting media reports and there was no official confirmation.
It was the first case of foreigners being seized by suspected Islamist militants in the mainly Muslim north of Cameroon, a former French colony.
The region is seen as being within the operational sphere of Nigerian sect Boko Haram and another Islamist militant group, Ansaru.
The threat to French nationals in the region has grown since France deployed thousands of troops to nearby Mali to root out al Qaeda-linked Islamists who took control of the country’s north last year.
The kidnapping in Cameroon brought to 15 the number of French citizens being held in West Africa.
French diplomatic sources said the government would not confirm the hostages had been released until it had physical proof, or until they were in French hands.
Reporting By Emile Picy and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Additional reporting by Joe Brock in Abuja and Bate Felix and John Irish in Dakar; Editing by Pravin Char and Tom Pfeiffer