Two French MPs on security fact-finding mission in Sahel
Two French lawmakers said here Wednesday they were on a fact-finding mission in the Sahel region focusing on the activities of Al-Qaeda's regional offshoot which is holding four French hostages.
They were speaking as France expressed fears it would be the target of reprisals for the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by US commandos, including against the hostages.
Henri Pagnol, of the ruling UMP party, and Francois Loncle, of the opposition Socialist Party, said they were on their way back from the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott and would head for the Malian capital Bamako later in the day.
Loncle said the team, which also plans to visit Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria in June, will assess the impact of the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on regional countries and "the role of France" in the fight against the extremist organisation.
In Nouakchott, the French MPs met with President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and several of his ministers as well as with opposition chief Ahmed Ould Daddah and French military officials.
"Mauritanians would like France, which is the main target in the region, to have a regional approach, a greater involvement," Loncle said.
In September last year AQIM gunmen kidnapped seven people working for French firms from an uranium mining town in northern Niger.
The gang is thought to have taken its hostages to secret camps in the deserts of neighbouring Mali.
In February, a French woman, a Togolese and a Madagascan were released, but sources close to the negotiation say the group has demanded 90 million euros in ransom for the remaining four, and the withdrawal of French forces from Afghanistan.
Mali, where AQIM has bases that it uses to strike from in several countries of the Sahel, has long been considered by its regional partners as a weak link in the fight against the armed extremists.
In Bamako, the French lawmakers, who are to release a report on their mission by year's end, were to confer with President Amadou Toumani Toure and Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Wednesday, "Threats are everywhere and we can indeed fear that France will, like the United States and other friendly countries, be the target of reprisals and desire for vengeance" after bin Laden's death.
Gueant said he was concerned about the threat "against French interests and French people abroad," particularly in the Sahel region.
He said French police were posted at airports in certain African countries considered at risk and France was being "very vigilant" at its embassies.
© 2011 AFP