Frenchman kidnapped in western Mali

21st November 2012, Comments 0 comments

France warned citizens on Wednesday against travelling to Mali after a Portuguese-born Frenchman was kidnapped by armed men in the restive country's west, as the international community takes steps to reclaim the Islamist-occupied north.

"We will do everything we can to find our citizen," French President Francois Hollande said.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged French citizens to avoid the western Mali "where they will put their lives and safety in danger".

The Frenchman, identified earlier as 61-year-old Jules Berto Rodriguez Leal by a Malian security source, was abducted on Tuesday evening in the town of Diema in the Kayes region after entering the country by car from neighbouring Mauritania.

The Mauritanian Information Agency said Leal had crossed into Mali via a border post at Gogui, and a security source said that there were seven kidnappers.

The Kayes region, part of Mali's western border with Mauritanian and Senegal, is not part of the northern half of the country currently held by Islamist forces who overran the area in the chaotic aftermath of a March coup in Bamako.

About four years ago, an Italian-Burkinabe couple was kidnapped in the same region by the north African branch of Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), then freed months later in exchange for a ransom, security sources said.

A hunt is under way for Leal, whose profession is unknown and whose kidnapping takes to seven the number of French hostages held in Mali.

The other six are all thought to be in the custody of AQIM, which is one of the three armed Islamist groups -- along with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine -- occupying northern Mali since the end of June.

The Islamists have imposed sharia law across the north, destroying ancient World Heritage Sites in Timbuktu, stoning a young unmarried couple to death, flagellating drinkers and smokers and forcing women under the veil.

Hollande implied Wednesday that the latest abduction could be linked to plans for military action in Mali, as France has played the lead role in pushing west African countries to intervene in the north.

"Taking hostages is a way of applying pressure but it will not influence our decisions," said Hollande, whose own life has been threatened by the AQIM.

Euopean Union foreign ministers on Monday agreed in principle to support a plan agreed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to send 3,300 troops into Mali to reconquer the north.

The plan must go before the UN Security Council by the end of the month.

Last month, a top AQIM official warned that any attempt to oust the Islamists in the north by military force would put the hostage lives in danger.

"I want to tell the families of the hostages that the choice of war apparently made by Mr Hollande will inevitably mean that he has signed the death warrant of the French hostages," said Yahya Abou El Hamame, the AQIM's "emir of the Sahel".

AQIM is holding hostage nine Europeans, including six French people, kidnapped in September 2010 and November 2011, while the MUJAO is holding at least three Algerian hostages.

© 2012 AFP

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