French military scour Mali desert for hostages

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French military planes scoured the West African desert on Tuesday in an effort to locate seven hostages kidnapped in Niger last week by suspected Al-Qaeda linked militants.

With specialised military troops in place in Niamey, France's Defence Minister Herve Morin said Tuesday every effort was being made to track down the hostages who have been moved by their kidnappers to the northern Mali desert.

"I really wish our compatriots can be returned as soon as possible. This requires that we make every effort and this is what we are doing," he said.

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.

According to Gilles Denamur, a former French military attache to Niger, an operation to free the hostages "will depend on information" as it would require the military to be 100 percent sure of succeeding.

The seven, including five French nationals, were kidnapped on Thursday from their homes in Arlit in northern Niger by suspected Al Qaeda-linked gunmen, or Tuareg bandits who may have planned to sell them on to the Islamists.

The five French hostages include a married couple. The other two victims, both of whom were working for French companies involved in uranium mining in the Arlit region, are from Togo and Madagascar.

Militants belonging to the north African branch of Osama bin Laden's terror network have made increasing threats against France and its citizens since a deadly Sahara raid in a bid to resuce another 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 executed the 78-year-old two days later in revenge for the deaths of its members.

The private online agency Nouakchott News published a communique from AQIM on Monday night, which neither claimed responsibility for, nor mentioned the latest kidnapping.

However it threatened retaliation against Mauritania as an "agent of France" for three days of strikes against AQIM members from Friday to Sunday in which 12 Islamists and eight Mauritanian soldiers killed.

The statement could not be authenticated by AFP.

The text condemned "the cowardly crime perpetrated through a retaliatory air strike after the crushing defeat (inflicted) by the mujahideen on the Mauritanian army, an agent of (President Nicolas) Sarkozy's France."

It accuses the Mauritanian army of killing two female civilians and injuring one man.

"We tell the French agent Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (Mauritania's president) that the bombing of unarmed innocents and the war that you are leading by proxy for France is crazy and the blood of two women martyrs ... will not go unpunished," the statement said.

In Mali, witnesses and elected officials also criticised the killing of two female civilians. The Mauritanian army denied bombing of civilian targets, claiming only the death of a woman described as "the wife of a terrorist".

The small AQIM army was born out of a radical Algerian group who wanted the Algerian government to be replaced with Islamic rule, and 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.

Its activities have helped scare off tourists to the region.

Mali, whose northern region houses AQIM camps, will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary of independence from France on Wednesday, bringing together regional heads of state as well as French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux.


© 2010 AFP

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