Mali fetes 50 years of independence amid hostage crisis

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Mali celebrated 50 years of independence from France Wednesday amid a hostage crisis, with Al-Qaeda militants holding seven foreigners captive, five of them French, in the north of the country.

French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux was in Bamako for the independence celebrations and was to meet his Malian counterpart President Amadou Toumani Toure.

"The president will inevitably discuss the hostage situation with his counterpart," a source close to the Malian presidency told AFP.

Hortefeux was also likely to meet other African heads of state in Bamako, including Mauritania's Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, sources said.

Discussions would focus on a military offensive by the Mauritania army against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) units in Mali from September 17 to 19. The outfit has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.

The five French, one Togolese and one Madagascan hostages were kidnapped in Niger last Thursday and transferred to Mali, which borders Mauritania.

Heads of state from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea, Libya, Mauritania and Togo were attending the independence celebration and many were expected to hold talks.

"The festival comes at a time when there are many security problems in the region. It's normal that the heads of state shall consult," a Malian official told AFP.

Festivities opened in the morning with a military parade by several African armies in front of tens of thousands of Malians.

"That's what we want. That our army shows its strength throughout the national territory," Ali, a student, told AFP.

Mali has been criticised by Algeria and Mauritania as a weak link in the fight against AQIM, which is increasingly active in north Africa.

France has a team in Niger trying to locate the hostages, who were kidnapped by gunmen from their homes in Arlit, a uranium-mining town in northern Niger.

© 2010 AFP

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