France seeks talks with Qaeda kidnappers: Sarkozy's office
Five French hostages and two other foreigners kidnapped in Niger by an Al-Qaeda gang are alive and being held in the mountains of northern Mali, President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said Sunday.
Gunmen seized the five French nationals -- including a married couple -- along with a Togolese and a Madagascan in a raid on September 16 on a uranium mining town in the deserts of northern Niger.
"We are ready to talk to the kidnappers," a presidential aide said Sunday, referring to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the local wing of Osama bin Laden's global jihadist network.
The aide said that "we have every reason to think that the hostages are alive" and have been taken to the hilly desert zone of Timetrine in the north of Mali near the Algerian border.
Most of the hostages work for France's state-owned nuclear giant Areva or its engineering sub-contractor Satom, and the firms have now withdrawn foreign workers from their Niger uranium mining operations.
France has warned its citizens to avoid travelling to the countries of west and north Africa that lie in the Sahel, a vast desert region where in recent years Al-Qaeda has become increasingly active.
Army chiefs and counter-terrorism experts from the Sahel region met Sunday in southern Algeria in a bid to come to grips with the growing threat of Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
"I cannot stress enough the stakes in this meeting," Algerian army chief of staff General Ahmed Gaid Sakah said at talks that brought together officials from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
He called on the countries to "respect their commitments and move into action" against terrorism in their region.
After the meeting, a Malian officer said the army chiefs had agreed to joint military operations
"We chose places where our troops will come together to combat terrorism. I think things will move," he added.
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 so far played down the likelihood of a military rescue mission.
French forces are mapping what is described as an area of rocky desert and sand mountains six times the size of France, with camps that could belong to Tuareg nomads, caravans, smugglers or Al-Qaeda.
AQIM -- which formed when Algerian Islamist rebels pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, known for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States -- posted an Internet statement claiming the hostage-taking was revenge for a French raid.
That raid 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 aid worker 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.
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 its citizens.
Sarkozy said last month that "it can't be our only strategy to pay ransoms and to agree to free prisoners in exchange for unlucky innocent victims."
The comment came after Spain ransomed two of its nationals snatched by Al-Qaeda in north Africa.
But within days of the latest kidnappings of French citizens, officials at the French defence ministry said they wanted to negotiate with the Al-Qaeda gang.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon will meet with parliamentary party leaders on Tuesday to discuss threats to France's security at home and abroad, his office said.
France heightened its security posture earlier this month amid signs Islamist militants may be planning to launch a terror attack in Paris.
© 2010 AFP