WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department offered rewards on Monday of $3 million to $7 million for information leading to the location of "leaders of terrorist organizations" in West Africa, the first time it has used the rewards program in the region.
The action targets leaders of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJWA, and the groups known as the Signed-in-Blood Battalion and Boko Haram.
Secretary of State John Kerry authorized a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to the location of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, based in Nigeria.
The State Department blamed the group for the August 2011 vehicle-bomb attack on a U.N. facility in Abuja, Nigeria, which killed at least 23 people and wounded 80.
"For the first time, the U.S. Department of State's Rewards for Justice program is offering rewards for information on key leaders of terrorist organizations in West Africa," it said in a statement.
Kerry set rewards of $5 million each for information leading to the location of AQIM leader Yahya Abu el Hammam and Signed-in-Blood Battalion leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
The State Department described Hammam as a senior leader of AQIM who had planned attacks and kidnappings in North and West Africa and was reported to be involved in the 2010 murder of an elderly French hostage in Niger.
Belmokhtar, previously a leader of AQIM, is the founder of the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, also known as the al-Mulathamun Battalion, the department said.
It said the group conducted the attack last January on a gas facility in In-Amenas, Algeria, where at least 37 hostages, including three U.S. citizens, were killed.
Kerry offered rewards of up to $3 million each for information leading to the location of AQIM leader Malik Abou Abdelkarim and MUJWA spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha.
Under Abdelkarim's command, AQIM fighters have conducted kidnappings and attacks in North and West Africa, the State Department said.
It said Hamaha participated in kidnappings of foreigners for ransom, including of a Canadian diplomat in Niamey, Niger, in December 2008.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney)