France seeks talks with Qaeda kidnappers: Sarkozy's office
The French presidency said Sunday that it wanted to negotiate with an Al-Qaeda gang that abducted five French nationals in Niger and took them to neighbouring Mali.
"We are ready to talk to the kidnappers," said an aide to President Nicolas Sarkozy, adding that "we have every reason to think that the hostages are alive."
The five French, along with a Togolese and a Madagascan hostage, have been taken to the hilly desert zone of Timetrine in the far north of Mali near the Algerian border, he said.
France said on Friday it had no plans to use force to rescue the hostages abducted this month and wanted to negotiate with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the local wing of Osama bin Laden's global jihadist network.
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.
Paris has deployed an 80-strong military intelligence unit and spotter planes to the Sahara to try to track down the AQIM gang, but officials have thus far played down the likelihood of a military rescue mission.
Gunmen seized the five French -- including a married couple -- as well as the two other hostages in a raid on two houses on September 16 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work for France's state-owned nuclear giant Areva or its engineering sub-contractor Satom, and the firms have since withdrawn foreign workers from their uranium mining operations in Niger.
AQIM -- which formed when Algerian Islamist rebels pledged allegiance to Saudi-born global jihadi figurehead Osama bin Laden -- 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.
© 2010 AFP