Latest update: 25/09/2010
Defence minister believes French hostages in Sahara are alive
French Defence Minister Hervé Morin said on Saturday that he believes five French nationals taken hostage in Niger over one week ago by al Qaeda militants are still alive.
AFP - There is “every reason” to believe that five French hostages being held in the Sahara by Al-Qaeda are alive, French Defence Minister Hervé Morin said on Saturday.
Five French, a Togolese and a Madagascan were kidnapped on September 16 from their homes in Arlit, a uranium mining town in the north of Niger, and taken to a remote location in Mali.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the local wing of Osama bin Laden’s global jihadist network, claimed the kidnapping and has warned Paris not to launch a military intervention.
“We have every reason to think that they are alive,” Morin told Europe 1 radio, although he acknowledged that there was “no proof of life, as such.”
“The claim of responsibility by Al-Qaeda indicating that in a few days we are going to have some precise demands, it is all this that leads us to think that, in effect, our compatriots are alive,” he said.
On the anticipated demands, he said, “that is what we are waiting for.”
France said on Friday it had no plans to use force to rescue the hostages and wanted to negotiate with the militant group.
Paris has deployed an 80-strong military intelligence unit and spotter planes to the Sahara to try to track the gang down, but officials have thus far played down the likelihood of a military rescue mission.
In July French and Mauritanian commandos launched an assault on an Al-Qaeda base in northern Mali, killing seven militants but failing to find a previous French hostage, 78-year-old Michel Germaneau, who was later reported killed by AQIM.
French forces are mapping what is described as an area of rocky desert and sand mountains six times the size of France, with camps that could belong to Tuaregs, caravans, smugglers or Al-Qaeda.
Despite repeated denials, France has earned a reputation over the years for paying off kidnappers—with cash and by prisoner exchanges—to protect its economic interests and the lives of is citizens.
After Germaneau’s death, however, Sarkozy signalled a new tougher stance.
“It can’t be our only strategy to pay ransoms and to agree to free prisoners in exchange for unlucky innocent victims. That can’t be a strategy,” he complained, after Madrid ransomed two Spanish hostages.