France mobilises to free hostages, believed alive

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France said Wednesday it had good reason to believe hostages held by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were still alive and vowed to mobilise all resources to secure their release.

France authenticated an Al-Qaeda claim to have kidnapped five of its nationals together with a Togolese and a Madagascan in Niger last Thursday, as it awaited the kidnappers' demands.

"We have not received proof of life, but we have good reasons to believe the hostages are alive," French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said after Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility.

Gunmen seized the seven in a raid on French firms working in northern Niger's uranium fields, and are now thought to have taken the captives to a remote corner of Mali.

A government spokesman said Wednesday that President Nicolas Sarkozy had ordered that "all the services of the state are mobilised to obtain the freedom of the hostages."

French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said in Bamako that military interventions had been ruled out "at this stage." Hortefeux is in Mali for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of its independence from France.

France has sought US and international help to locate the hostages, who are believed held in northern Mali.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France and its partners would continue to "be as careful as possible" and lend all their resources to the release of the hostages.

Speaking on the fringes of a UN summit in New York, he said he was "not really surprised that Al-Qaeda is behind this kidnapping.

"Now that this is a certainty, we will continue -- the French, our allies, the countries of the Sahel and Europe I hope ... to put all the means at our disposal for their liberation," he added.

AQIM militants have made increasing threats against France and its citizens since a deadly Sahara raid in a bid to rescue French hostage Michel Germaneau.

Seven AQIM members were killed in the failed Mauritanian-French raid in Mali on July 22 and the group said it had executed the 78-year-old two days later as a reprisal for the raid.

The group claimed last week's abductions as French military planes scoured the west African desert to locate the hostages.

"In announcing our claim for this operation, we inform the French government that the mujahedeen will later transmit their legitimate demands," AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed said in an audio tape played by Al-Jazeera late Tuesday.

"We also warn (the French government) against any sort of stupidity," he added, in what appeared to be a reference to a possible military operation.

Two US officials told AFP that France had asked Washington for military help to track down the captives.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to offer any details about US military support for French forces, but analysts said the assistance could include imagery from spy satellites or unmanned aircraft.

From the Niger capital, some 80 French soldiers took turns to lead flights with a long-range reconnaissance plane and a specially modified Mirage jet with detection equipment.

The hostage crisis will dominate meetings at Mali's independence celebrations, which began Wednesday with a military parade. The event is being attended by several heads of state including Mauritania's Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

In its claim, AQIM said the kidnapping was conducted under the command of the Algerian radical Islamist Abu Zeid Abelhamid. He is considered responsible for the 2009 killing of a British hostage; and of the July killing of the French hostage Michel Germaneau.

The small AQIM army was born out of a radical Algerian group who want to replace the Algerian government with Islamic rule. It aligned itself with Osama Bin Laden's terror network in 2006.

Since then it has spun a tight network across the Sahel, raking in millions from kidnappings and drug trafficking, killing several hostages and carrying out attacks across the six countries it spans.

© 2010 AFP

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