- al Qaeda - France - kidnapping - Niger
Al Qaeda releases images of hostages kidnapped in Niger
The North African branch of al Qaeda released images on Thursday of seven hostages (pictured), including five French nationals, who were kidnapped in Niger on Sept. 16. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is to meet the victims' families Friday.
AFP - Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) posted a photo on the Internet on Thursday of seven people, including five French, whom it kidnapped in Niger two weeks ago.
There was no indication of when or where the picture was taken, but the French foreign ministry said it had been authenticated and its publication was an "encouraging sign."
"This photograph has been authenticated. Even if we don't know when it was taken, it's an encouraging sign in as much as it shows all the hostages alive," a ministry statement said.
"State services are fully mobilised and doing all they can to free them. We are in constant liaison with their families," it added.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner later stressed that France was still waiting to hear from AQIM, and that there were still no talks under way with them.
The photo and an audiotape were made available by the SITE Intelligence Group, which said they were produced by AQIM's media arm, the Al-Andalus Foundation.
The picture showed all seven hostages -- the French, a Togolese and a Madagascan -- seated in the sand with armed men standing behind them and seated next to them.
The US-based monitoring service said the captives were questioned on the audiotape about their names, ages, marital status and if they knew who their kidnappers were. It said they acknowledged the kidnappers as AQIM.
AQIM gunmen seized the five French nationals -- including a married couple -- in a raid on September 16 in the uranium mining town of Arlit in the deserts of northern Niger.
Several sources have said that the seven hostages are being held in the desert north of neighbouring Mali, close to the border with Algeria, in a zone known as the Timetrine.
Daniel Larribe, a French engineer seized along with his wife Francoise, said on the tape: "We were taken from our lodgings at night... by a group from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and we are currently being held by AQIM."
Francoise Larribe, her face deliberately blurred in the photo, said: "I am sixty two and a half. I am married. I was taken from my residence, from my room in the (engineers') quarters in Arlit... by AQIM. I am still being held by AQIM."
Kouchner said in Paris that, "aside from the photo, we do not have anything else."
He added that the hostages "are apparently in good condition," which is a "positive sign."
Asked whether contact had been made with the kidnappers, Kouchner said: "I am still not talking about dialogue because there is no dialogue."
The head of French nuclear firm Areva, Anne Lauvergeon, traveled to Niger on Thursday and met with President Salou Djibo, also called the publication of the photograph "an encouraging sign, a very encouraging sign ... they are alive".
The seven expatriates included an Areva manager and his wife, both French, and five employees of the Satom subsidiary of construction firm Vinci, which works with Areva.
The Satom workers are three French, the Togolese and the Madagascan.
AQIM, the North African wing of Osama Bin Laden's organisation, has claimed responsibility for taking the hostages, and France has announced that it is ready to negotiate.
Areva has launched an internal inquiry into security at its Arlit site and the circumstances of the kidnapping. The company has been accused of failing sufficiently to take into account threats weighing over its personnel in Niger.
Lauvergeon, who refuted any suggestions by journalists that Areva bears some responsibility for the kidnapping of the workers.
"We are not responsible for being attacked," said Lauvergeon, evoking a "threat no one expected."
"You shouldn't ever confuse the aggressors with the victims," she added.