France refuses to rule out military action on Niger hostages

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France refused Sunday to rule out taking military action to free seven hostages, including five French nationals, kidnapped in Niger last week by suspected Al-Qaeda militants.

Mauritanian troops -- which have operated with French support in recent months -- are already in action against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Mali, but France says its forces are not involved for now.

"France will do everything to free the hostages," government spokesman Luc Chatel told Radio J in Paris.

Asked whether that could involve military action, he replied: "I won't say any more, you must understand why, given the hour at which I'm speaking."

In July, French commandos accompanied Mauritanian troops in a raid on an Al-Qaeda camp in Mali, which left seven militants dead but failed to find a previous French hostage who is now known to be have been killed.

Mauritanian troops went into action against AQIM in Mali again on Saturday, but Chatel said: "No French troops are engaged in this second operation."

The latest batch of hostages was kidnapped on Thursday from their homes in Arlit in northern Niger by suspected AQIM-linked gunmen. Officials fear that they have been transported across the desert into northern Mali.

The seven are five French nationals, including a married couple, one Togolese and one Madagascan. All worked for French companies involved in uranium mining in the Arlit region.

© 2010 AFP

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