Two French nationals kidnapped in Mali
A gang kidnapped two French nationals at gunpoint from their hotel in the Malian desert early Thursday, local security sources said, the latest abduction of foreigners in the troubled region.
The two geologists were seized from the eastern village of Hombori near the border with Niger, in an assault bearing the hallmark of Al-Qaeda linked Islamist militants.
A Hombori municipality source said seven armed men entered the hotel at about 1:00 am (0100 GMT) and made off with their hostages to the north of the country, a hotbed of Al-Qaeda militants.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe confirmed that the men had been taken in circumstances that were not yet clear.
"We are in the process of gathering information" on how the pair were taken, Juppe told iTele news channel.
The latest kidnap brings to six the number of French hostages in the Sahel area, with the group known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) still holding four nationals abducted in Niger in September 2010.
Northern Mali is home to a number of AQIM bases used to launch attacks and kidnappings in the Sahel region on the southern side of the Sahara that includes parts of Mali, Algeria, Niger and Mauritania.
The two geologists, employed by a cement works in the region, were seized a day after a former French military official involved in efforts to free the hostages in Niger was shot and wounded in the shoulder.
An Italian and two Spaniards kidnapped in Algeria in October are also believed to be held by AQIM, although the group has not claimed responsibilty.
At a regional security meeting in Mali's capital Bamako this week, delegates complained that a lack of support by Algeria for military operations against AQIM was a serious setback to efforts to crack down on the group.
"We must recognise that up against a transnational enemy, which is well organised and disposes of enormous financial and material means, we need to develop further our capacity to carry out joint multinational operations," Mali's army chief General Gabriel Poudiougou said Monday.
Negotiations for the release of the four Frenchmen, who were among a total of seven people snatched by AQIM in the uranium mining town of Arlit in Niger, have been complicated by the fallout from the conflict in Libya.
Thursday's kidnapping came the same day as news that a French woman aid worker seized two days ago in Yemen's restive south had been released.
AQIM grew out of Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which took part in a civil war there that has now ended. Since 2007, AQIM has launched a range of operations in the vast Sahel strip south of the Sahara.
Operating from their bases in northern Mali, the radical Islamists have carried out attacks on troops and civilians, kidnappings, particularly of Westerners, of whom several were executed.
AQIM is also engaged in trafficking of various kinds, including weapons and drugs.
© 2011 AFP