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American kidnapped in Benin, US Embassy says

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RUKMINI CALLIMACHI | May 30, 2012 03:52 PM EST | AP

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DAKAR, Senegal — An American citizen has been kidnapped in the normally peaceful and politically stable nation of Benin, according to U.S. officials.

A statement published Tuesday on the website of the U.S. Embassy in the West African country, did not identify the kidnapping victim or say when he or she was abducted. It only said the matter is being investigated and there is no reason to believe that other American nationals or interests are at risk in Benin.

A U.S. official familiar with the case said that it appears to be a straight kidnapping. There has been a ransom demand and the victim is believed to be in good health. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The country, like its neighbors in this troubled, western corner of Africa, weathered repeated coups and military regimes after independence from France 52 years ago. But Benin turned a corner in the 1990s, holding free elections in a transition that was considered the first successful transfer of power in Africa from a dictatorship to a democracy.

Still, Benin shares a border with the much-larger nation of Nigeria, which has been destabilized by the rise of Boko Haram, an anti-Western terrorist group that has led dozens of suicide bombings, including on the United Nations compound in the Nigerian capital.

Francine Ochabi, the press attache for Benin's president, said she was not aware of the kidnapping and that the government had no comment. An embassy spokeswoman reached by telephone on Wednesday declined to provide any further information.

An al-Qaida offshoot active in North Africa has bankrolled its operations by kidnapping foreigners elsewhere in West Africa, especially in Niger, Mauritania and Mali. The ransoms have proved so lucrative that it has led to the creation of a criminal underworld, including go-betweens who kidnap foreigners, and then sell them off to the al-Qaida branch.

The so-called "kidnap economy" has not yet spread as far south as Benin. However, kidnaps-for-ransom are relatively common in next-door Nigeria.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.