France says Al-Qaeda behind Sahara kidnap, hostages alive
France said Wednesday it had mobilised its entire military, diplomatic and intelligence apparatus in West Africa to ensure the safe return of seven hostages held in the Sahara by Al-Qaeda militants.
In Paris, the foreign ministry said France had authenticated a message from Al-Qaeda's regional branch boasting that it had carried out last week's kidnap in Niger of seven foreigners, including five French nationals.
"We have not received proof of life, but we have good reasons to believe the hostages are alive," French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said after Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility.
"We are in a position to confirm the authenticity of the claim," Nadal said, referring to a tape broadcast on the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera, in which an apparent AQIM militant said ransom demands would follow.
Nadal said France had received no other communication, and was not yet aware of any precise demands from the hostage-takers.
French government spokesman Luc Chatel told reporters that President Nicolas Sarkozy had declared at a weekly cabinet meeting that "all the services of the state are mobilised to obtain the freedom of the hostages."
On Thursday last week, gunmen raided at least two homes in a "secured" part of the uranium mining town on Arlit in northern Niger, kidnapping five French nationals and a Togolese and a Madagascan working for French firms.
Intelligence officials believe that the group has now taken them across the border into Mali, where the hostages are being held somewhere in a remote range of arid mountains in the Sahara, near the Algerian border.
France has deployed an 80-strong military detachment equipped with spotter planes and intelligence gathering equipment in a bid to track down the gang.
But French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said in the Malian capital Bamako, where he is attending independence day celebrations, said there were no plans for a military rescue operation "at this stage."
In Washington, US officials said France had asked for its assistance in hunting down the gang, amid reports that the Pentagon operates a listening post in southern Algeria to monitor regional radio and telephone traffic.
France did not confirm US assets were involved in the hunt, but said it was working "with all the governments involved in fighting terrorism in the Sahel."
Many of the states of North and West Africa, including Niger, Algeria, Mali and Mauritania, are former French colonies, and France has military trainers working along some of the local troops.
In July, French and Mauritanian troops launched a joint raid on an Al-Qaeda base in Mali, killing seven militants, but failing to find a previous French hostage, whom both France and AQIM now say is dead.
AQIM vowed to avenge the raid at the time, and has now claimed the kidnap.
"In announcing our claim for this operation, we inform the French government that the mujahedeen will later transmit their legitimate demands," AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed said in an audio tape.
"We also warn against any sort of stupidity," he added, in an apparent reference to a possible military operation against the militants.
The tape was broadcast by Al-Jazeera and posted on the YouTube video sharing website by "megreb8477" (www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVGnWZGn52c).
© 2010 AFP