DUBAI (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.
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. In it, 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.
The hostages are being held in a mountain stronghold in northern Mali, according to a Malian report confirmed by French officials.
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.”
Publication of the picture coincided with news that the head of French nuclear firm Areva would be in Niger on Thursday and Friday.
Some of the hostages work for Areva, while the others are employed by an affiliate company.
A Niger presidential aide said Anne Lauvergeon will meet President Salou Djibo on Thursday at 5:00 pm (1600 GMT) and on Friday at 6:00 pm, the source told AFP.
Areva, which had refused over the past few days to announce the date of the trip, confirmed to AFP in Paris on Thursday that Lauvergeon was headed for the west African state, where Areva mines uranium.
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.
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.
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.