France boosts efforts to find hostages
France dispatched dozens of specialised military personnel to Niger as it stepped up efforts to locate seven hostages held by suspected Al-Qaeda militants, diplomatic and military sources said Monday.
The 80-strong technical group has set up a base in the capital Niamey and are working in five teams, using a long-range reconnaissance plane to scour the desert and a specially modified Mirage jet with detection equipment.
"The goal is to detect radio broadcasts and electromagnetic emissions in a bid to locate the hostage takers," a government source in Paris told AFP. The defence ministry refused to confirm or deny the information.
Flying out of Niamey airport, the planes "have already carried out 21 hours of reconnaissance flights in the area in an effort to locate the hostages," said another source in the Niger capital.
The planes are believed to be flying north of Niamey and into the mountainous desert region of northeastern Mali, where various sources in the region say the hostages are being held.
The seven, including five French nationals, were kidnapped on Thursday from their homes in Arlit in northern Niger by suspected Al Qaeda-linked gunmen, or Tuareg bandits who may have planned to sell them on to the Islamists.
They are five French nationals, including a married couple, one Togolese and one Madagascan. Most worked for French companies involved in uranium mining in the Arlit region.
"We have not at this time received any demand or any proof of life," a spokesman for the French foreign ministry said on Monday .
France has said it suspects the North African wing of Al-Qaeda -- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- and has not ruled taking military action. "France will do everything to free the hostages," government spokesman Luc Chatel said on Sunday.
Well-equipped and highly mobile, AQIM operates in the vast Sahel desert region spanning the borders of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
Mauritanian troops bombarded AQIM positions in northern Mali over three days ending Sunday in an operation the government said was not linked to the kidnappings.
Official figures released by Mauritania on Saturday said the fighting had left 12 dead and an unknown number of wounded among AQIM militants, with the army saying six of its troops had been killed and eight wounded.
Malian politicians condemned the deaths of two civilians in air strikes on the AQIM positions.
Niger government spokesman Laouali Dan Dah said on Sunday that the group targeted by the Mauritanian army was "not the one who had taken the hostages" but may have links to the cell responsible.
A security source in Nouakchott said Monday that six people suspected of having links to AQIM had been captured by the Mauritanian army during its offensive.
"These six suspects have been taken prisoner by our armed forces but it is premature to give any indications of their identity or degree of implication in terrorism," the source said.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz was expected to fly to Bamako on Tuesday on the eve of independence celebrations in Mali and meet with his counterpart Amadou Toumani Toure .
© 2010 AFP