A day after al Qaeda’s North African branch claimed last week’s kidnapping of seven foreigners – including five French nationals – in Niger, French authorities are investigating the claim as the hunt for the hostages continues.
French authorities are probing an al Qaeda claim that its North African branch is responsible for the kidnapping of seven hostages - including five French nationals - in northern Niger, as the search for the hostages in one of the world’s most hostile regions entered its sixth day.
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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.
On Tuesday, the Arabic TV channel Al Jazeera broadcast a purported audio message by al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) claiming the kidnapping of the five French nationals and saying that it will issue its demands to the French government “shortly”.
In the audio tape, AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed warned France against “any sort of stupidity,” presumably referring to a military operation to try to rescue the hostages.
Responding to the alleged claim, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said it 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.
But he added that at this stage it was not known if AQIM carried out the kidnappings directly or if the group “outsourced” the operation to other militant or criminal groups.
Hortefeux was speaking to reporters shortly after arriving in the Malian capital of Bamako early Wednesday, where he is attending the celebrations around the 50th anniversary of the West African nation’s independence from France. But his visit has been overshadowed by the kidnappings in neighbouring Niger.
The French interior minister fended off a question about a possible French military intervention, saying: "At this stage I don’t know,” before adding, "And if there is a plan I'm not going to tell you."
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 he was "not really surprised” by AQIM’s claim.
The focus now, he added, 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.
According to the AQIM statement broadcast on Al Jazeera Tuesday, 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.
AQIM has made increasing threats against France and its citizens since France conducted a deadly Sahara raid in a bid to rescue Germaneau.
In the audio statement broadcast Tuesday, AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed said the latest kidnapping took place at one of the "world's main sources of uranium and France has, for decades, constantly plundered this strategic resource.”
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