Al-Qaeda demands 90m-euro ransom for French hostages

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Al-Qaeda's north African branch is demanding at least 90 million euros in ransom for the release of four French hostages held since September, a source close to mediators said Monday.

The French government rejected the demand, which also included the freeing of prisoners from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) being held in France and elsewhere.

"The kidnappers are demanding at least 90 million euros (128 million dollars) to release the four French hostages still being held," said the Niger source close to talks taking place in northern Mali.

"They also want the release of AQIM prisoners taken in several countries, including France," the source said.

The four Frenchmen were among seven people kidnapped in September 2010 in neighbouring Niger's remote uranium-mining town of Arlit and then taken into Mali.

Three of them -- a Togolese, a Madagascan national and the ailing French wife of an executive who is among the group still held -- were freed on February 25 after a ransom was paid, according to a source close to negotiations.

The men all worked for France's Areva, a world leading nuclear energy company, or one of its subsidiaries.

The abduction was claimed by AQIM whose leader warned France to pull its troops out of Afghanistan if it wanted to see the safe return of the French hostages.

On November 18 it urged France to negotiate the fate of the captives directly with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but this was rejected by Paris which stated that its foreign policy would not be dictated from outside.

Other sources close to the mediation talks confirmed that a ransom and release of prisoners had been demanded. "I can tell you that everyone is mobilised to obtain the release of the hostages," the Niger source said.

"We expect long and difficult negotiations. But there is hope," a Malian close to the mediation said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe rejected the ransom demand. "We do not negotiate on these bases," he said on the sidelines of a meeting in Brussels.

The north African branch of Al-Qaeda operates in a vast desert area across Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, where it carries out attacks, trafficking and kidnapping of Westerners.

On March 4 the chairwoman of the Areva group, Anne Lauvergeon, said that she had "high hopes" of seeing the remaining French hostages returning to France "as soon as possible".

© 2011 AFP

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