Al-Qaeda ally claims kidnap of French nationals in Niger
Al-Qaeda's north Africa wing on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the kidnap of seven foreign workers in Niger, including five French nationals, and warned it would make demands to Paris.
"In announcing our claim for this operation, we inform the French government that the mujahedeen will later transmit their legitimate demands," Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed said in an audio tape played by Al-Jazeera.
"We also warn (the French government) against any sort of stupidity," he added, in reference to any possible military operation to rescue the hostages.
With specialised military troops in place in Niamey, France's Defence Minister Herve Morin said every effort was being made to track down the hostages who have been moved by their kidnappers to the northern Mali desert.
"I really wish our compatriots can be returned as soon as possible. This requires that we make every effort and this is what we are doing," he said.
From the Niger capital, around 80 French soldiers took turns to lead flights with a long-range reconnaissance plane and a specially modified Mirage jet with detection equipment.
According to Gilles Denamur, a former French military attache to Niger, an operation to free the hostages "will depend on information" as it would require the military to be 100 percent sure of succeeding.
The seven hostages were kidnapped on Thursday from their homes in Arlit in northern Niger.
Militants belonging to AQIM have made increasing threats against France and its citizens since a deadly Sahara raid in a bid to rescue French hostage Michel Germaneau.
Seven AQIM members were killed in the failed Mauritanian-French raid in Mali on July 22 and the group said it executed the 78-year-old two days later in revenge for the deaths of its members.
Earlier on Tuesday the Niger government said the kidnappers were "affiliated" to AQIM.
"We have not received any claims of responsibility but we have analysed the information that has reached us. We have also analysed the evidence that we have collected," government spokesman Laouali Dan Dahhe said.
"Based on this evidence, we are in a position to say that the group which undertook this unacceptable kidnapping is a group affiliated to the group of (Abdelhamid) Abou Zeid who is himself linked with ... Al Qaeda," he said.
Zeid is the leader in northern Mali of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The five French hostages include a married couple. The other two victims, both of whom were working for French companies including nuclear group Areva involved in uranium mining in the Arlit region, are from Togo and Madagascar.
Areva, which has been criticised over its security measures for workers, admitted that Niger officials had warned it in a letter dated September 1 about the deteriorating situation in the Arlit region.
It said that on August 23, a group of armed men in a column of eight Toyotas was chased off by Niger's defence forces and prevented from carrying out their their suspected plan to kidnap foreigners and seize military material.
The letter, addressed to Areva directors and the heads of other firms operating in the mining region, was signed by the top Niger official in the Arlit region, Captain Seydou Oumanou.
Areva has denied refusing help from the Niger government to protect workers but admitted it had made security mistakes.
The small AQIM army was born out of a radical Algerian group who wanted the Algerian government to be replaced with Islamic rule, and aligned itself with Osama Bin Laden's terror network in 2006.
Since then it has spun a tight network across the Sahel, raking in millions from kidnappings and drug trafficking, killing several hostages and carrying out attacks across the six countries it spans.
Its activities have helped scare off tourists to the region.
Mali, whose northern region houses AQIM camps, will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary of independence from France on Wednesday, bringing together regional heads of state as well as French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux.
© 2010 AFP