France was trying yesterday to contact al-Qaeda to find out what it wants in exchange for the release of five French hostages kidnapped in the Sahara, after the group warned against any rescue attempt.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin told RTL radio that the government believed the five French nationals and two Africans working for French firms are alive and being held in northern Mali, one week after they were taken captive in Niger.
“For the moment our concern is to be able to enter in contact with al-Qaeda, to know what the demands are, which we haven’t received,” Morin said, in an apparent admission that Paris is ready to negotiate.
“What we want is for al-Qaeda at some point to put demands on the table,” he said. “In other cases, they have negotiated.”
Last Thursday, gunmen seized five French nationals — including a married couple — a Togolese and a Madagascan in a raid on two houses in the uranium mining town of Arlit in the deserts of northern Niger.
Most of the hostages work for France’s state-owned nuclear giant Areva or its engineering sub-contractor Satom, and the firms have since withdrawn foreign workers from their uranium mining operations in Niger.
Al-Qaeda’s north African branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and yesterday warned France not to risk an attempt to use military force to rescue the hostages.
France said AQIM’s claim of responsibility was genuine, and officials believed the hostages had been taken to a remote and arid range of mountains deep in the Sahara in Mali near the Algerian border.
“We have not received any proof of life, but we have every reason to think they are alive,” Morin said.
AQIM posted an Internet statement claiming the hostage taking was revenge for a French raid.
The assault took place on July 22, when French and Mauritanian troops stormed an al-Qaeda base in northern Mali and killed seven militants, but failed to find a previous French hostage, 78-year-old Michel Germaneau.
AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud has said that Germaneau was subsequently executed in retaliation for the raid, although French officials suspect the elderly aid worker may have died beforehand.
In a statement released on Tuesday through al-Jazeera and YouTube, AQIM said: “We inform the French government that the mujahedeen will send their legitimate demands later and warn it against any other stupidity.”
Morin said France had received no other communication from the kidnappers.
France has dispatched a military intelligence team to Niger equipped with spotter planes and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday that France would mobilize all its organs of state to ensure the release of hostages.
Paris has not ruled out the use of military force to attempt a rescue, but analysts say that would be extremely difficult to pull off, especially if the kidnappers have divided their captives among different locations.
Despite repeated denials, France has earned a reputation over the years for paying off kidnappers **--** with cash and by prisoner exchanges **--** to protect its economic interests and the lives of is citizens.
After Germaneau’s death, however, Sarkozy signaled a new tougher stance.
“It can’t be our only strategy to pay ransoms and to agree to free prisoners in exchange for unlucky innocent victims. That can’t be a strategy,” he complained, after Madrid ransomed two Spanish hostages.
France also faces a second west African hostage crisis. Three French seamen were kidnapped by pirates on Wednesday from an oil industry supply ship working off the southern coast of Niger’s neighbour Nigeria.
The second hostage-taking was not related, but adds to the pressure on Paris as it tries to resolve the crisis.
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