French nationals warned of kidnap risk in Mali, Niger

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The risk of kidnappings of French nationals in Mali and Niger is "very high" according to new intelligence, the French embassy in Mali said in an alert on its website Tuesday.

"I am letting you know of information of a new very elevated risk of hostage taking of French citizens in Mali and Niger," said the alert signed by consul general Patrick Mazounie.

This was particularly the case for Mali's southeastern Mopti region near the border with Burkina Faso, he said.

"It would be better to avoid this area and scrupulously respect security guidelines," he said.

A Mali security source confirmed the threat and said there was information it was linked to the turmoil in Libya, where veteran leader Moamer Kadhafi is facing a revolt led by rebels he claims are backed by Al-Qaeda militants.

"We, like other countries, have learnt that terrorists want to take hostages in the Sahel countries and drive them to Libya with the aim of making official the presence of Al-Qaeda in that country," he said on condition of anonymity.

"We are taking all necessary precautions in concert with other countries," he said.

Kadhafi's regime reiterated at the weekend that Al-Qaeda was involved in the Libyan conflict, saying a leader of the group was en route to the western rebel-held city of Misrata with a group of fighters.

Early in April, officials leading the fight against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the network's offshoot in the Sahel region spanning north Africa, said weapons from the Kadhafi regime were in the group's hands.

There was a "great danger of seeing AQIM becoming one of the strongest armies in the Sahel," one said.

"Many weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists, especially ground to air missiles," an official said after rebels raided Libyan army barracks.

AQIM, which operates across several countries in the Sahel-Sahara desert, holds four French hostages who were part of a group of seven captured in September last year in Niger's uranium-mining town of Arlit.

Three of the group -- a French woman and two Africans -- were freed on February 24 near the borders between Algeria, Mali and Niger.

AQIM, also responsible for kidnapping other French and foreign nationals in the area, has demanded 90 million euros for their release, according to a Niger official close to the negotiations. France has rejected the demand.

© 2011 AFP

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