DUBAI (AFP) – Al-Qaeda has warned Paris not to attempt to rescue five French nationals kidnapped by jihadists in Niger, SITE monitoring group said Thursday, as France mobilised its forces to find them.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb posted a statement on jihadist forums in which it said the kidnappings came in the “context of retaliation” promised by AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud to France, the US-based group said.
SITE said the statement carried a warning to France that they should not attempt another rescue mission “like they had done for Michel Germaneau” and that the group “will issue their legitimate demands later.”
“In the context of retaliation… a group of heroic mujahedeen under the command of Sheikh Abu Zeid, may Allah protect him, were able to break into the French Arlit mining area in Niger,” said the statement carried by SITE.
“Despite the tough military stands in the area and the many security cordons, the lions of Islam were able to go through all the guards and kidnap five French nuclear experts working at Areva,” it said.
“We also warn of the consequences should they commit any foolish action again, because it will be doomed to fail and they will certainly pay a heavy price.”
French Defence Minister Herve Morin said Thursday.France hopes to contact Al-Qaeda to hear its demands.
“We have not received any proof of life, but we have every reason to think they are alive,” Morin told RTL radio, adding that the five hostages and two African colleagues had probably been moved to northern Mali.
“For the moment our concern is to be able to enter in contact with Al-Qaeda, to know what the demands are, which we haven’t received,” he said.
“What we want is for Al-Qaeda at some point to put demands on the table,” he said. “In other cases, they have negotiated.”
AQIM militants have repeatedly threatened France and its citizens since a July deadly Sahara raid in a bid to rescue French hostage Germaneau in which seven of its members were killed. The group said it executed the 78-year-old as a reprisal for the raid, vowing further revenge against France.
Gunmen seized the five French nationals along with a Togolese and a Madagascan on September 16 in a raid on French firms working in northern Niger’s uranium fields.
President Nicolas Sarkozy announced on Wednesday a full mobilisation of French forces to try and rescue the hostages.
“As the president just said, all the services of the state are mobilised to obtain the freedom of the hostages,” French government spokesman Luc Chatel said after Sarkozy chaired a cabinet meeting.
Many states in North and West Africa, including Niger, Algeria, Mali and Mauritania, were former French colonies, and France has military trainers working along some of the local troops.
SITE quoted AQIM as saying Western firms “that steal our wealth and take advantage of our people should know that they are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen and they should leave promptly, because our land is not a field for plunder and our wealth is not something to be taken advantage of.”
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, due to meet with his Malian counterpart President Amadou Toumani Toure in Bamako, said that military interventions had been ruled out “at this stage”.
In Washington, US officials said France had asked for its assistance in hunting down the militants, amid reports that the Pentagon operates a listening post in southern Algeria to monitor regional radio and telephone traffic.
France did not confirm US assets were involved in the hunt, but said it was working “with all the governments involved in fighting terrorism in the Sahel.”
The small AQIM army has spun a tight network across the Sahel, raking in millions from kidnappings and drug trafficking, killing several hostages and carrying out attacks across the six countries it spans.