French President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to mobilise all state services to ensure the release of seven foreigners – including five French nationals – kidnapped last week in Niger. French officials say they believe the hostages are alive.
A day after al Qaeda’s North African branch released an audio-taped statement claiming the kidnapping of seven foreigners – including five French nationals – in Niger; a French foreign ministry official said France had “good reason” to believe the hostages were alive.
Speaking to reporters in Paris Wednesday, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said France had “not received proof of life, but we have good reason to believe that the hostages are alive."
The seven hostages - employees of the French nuclear group Areva and construction firm Vinci - were kidnapped last week in Arlit, a mining town in uranium rich northern Niger.
Nadal also said a message by al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) claiming the kidnapping was authentic.
The audio tape was broadcast Tuesday on the Arabic TV channel Al Jazeera.
In the message, AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed warned France against “any sort of stupidity,” presumably referring to a military operation to try to rescue the hostages.
The statement also reported that the kidnapping was led by Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, an Algerian national accused of killing a British hostage last year and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in July.
As the hunt for the hostages entered its sixth day, a spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France will mobilise all the services of the state to ensure their release.
France has been on a state of heightened alert since last week following an escalation of threats by AQIM against France and French nationals.
French special forces arrive in Niger
Earlier Wednesday, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said AQIM’s claim came as no surprise to French intelligence and security services.
"We suspected AQIM was involved. What was previously an assumption is now a confirmation," he said.
Hortefeux was speaking to reporters shortly after arriving in the Malian capital of Bamako early Wednesday, where he is attending the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the West African nation’s independence from France. But his visit has been overshadowed by the kidnappings in neighbouring Niger.
Reporting from Niamey, the capital of Niger, FRANCE 24’s Clovis Casali said 80 French special forces troops had arrived in Niamey earlier this week to try to locate the hostages.
“The Niger government spokesperson has highlighted that these men are a support force, they’re not leading the operations,” said Casali. The French troops were conducting aerial reconnaissance flights using planes – including Mirages – equipped with cameras and systems to intercept satellite phone conversations, said Casali.
Seeking US and international help
Speaking on the fringes of a UN summit in New York late Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the focus now would be to “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.”
The Sahel refers to the punishing transition terrain in northern Africa between the Sahara to the north and the savannah to the south.
French officials believe the seven hostages and their captors have crossed the Niger-Mali border and are probably in Malian territory.
France has sought US help to track the hostages, according to an AFP report citing two US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The officials declined to offer any details about the US military's support for French forces. But analysts believe the assistance could include imagery from spy satellites or unmanned aircraft.
Algerian national led attack
Thursday’s kidnappings are the latest in a string of attacks in the Sahel that have been claimed by AQIM, which until now had not staged any operations in the part of Niger where the five French nationals were abducted.
AQIM has made increasing threats against France and its citizens since France conducted a deadly Sahara raid in a bid to rescue Germaneau.
AQIM was born out of a radical Algerian Islamist group that fought a bloody battle against the Algerian government in the 1990s. The remnants of the Algerian group, known as the GSPC in France (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) officially announced that it had joined forces with al Qaeda in 2006 to become the global terror group’s North African branch.
In recent months, AQIM has increased its activities across the region spanning Niger, Mali and Mauritania.
Areva acknowledges receiving warning letter from Niger officials
French nuclear giant Areva on Tuesday said in a statement that the company was doing everything it could to assist the Niger and French authorities in tracking down its employees.
On Tuesday left-leaning French daily Le Monde published a letter dated September 1 sent by the Niger authorities to Areva warning of the risk of kidnappings in the area.
"In these difficult conditions, you will understand the threat from AQIM is to be taken seriously," the letter said.
Areva officials have confirmed that the company received a letter from an official in Niger on September 1 warning the company of intelligence about a plot to kidnap foreigners.
In a statement released later Tuesday, Areva said the letter was part of its regular contacts with Niger officials, and that the company's deputy for security had visited the region in early September to meet with Niger officials, who offered “no particular information'' about the threat.
Date created : 2010-09-22