France: won't negotiate on Qaeda hostage terms

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 21, 2011 12:24 PM
France: won't negotiate on Qaeda hostage terms

By Daniel Flynn and Abdoulaye Massalaatchi

BRUSSELS/NIAMEY (Reuters) - France will not negotiate on a demand by al Qaeda's north African wing for 90 million euros to release four French nationals held hostage since September, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Monday.

Kidnappers are demanding 90 million euros ($127 million) for the return of the hostages captured in Niger and held hostage by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, sources close to mediation efforts told Reuters.

"We do not negotiate on these terms," said Juppe, who was attending a regular meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels.

The kidnappers made the demand within the past few days, a Nigerien military intelligence source said. A source close to the French nuclear group Areva confirmed the ransom demand.

French government sources declined to confirm whether the government had received a ransom demand. One source said any such demand would be "ridiculously extravagant."

A Togolese and a Malagasy working for French construction company Vinci in Niger and the French wife of an employee of Areva were freed in February and handed over to authorities in Niger.

It was unclear if a ransom was paid at the time, although the French government thanked Areva in a statement for its help in securing the release of the hostages.

Areva has a number of uranium mining interests in northern Niger while Sogea-Satom, a subsidiary of Vinci, is working as a contractor in the region.

The increased risk of kidnappings, either by Islamists or local gunmen cooperating with them, has made large tracts of Mauritania, Mali and Niger no-go areas for westerners.

An Italian woman kidnapped in Algeria in early February is also being held by the Islamists.

Western nations led by France and the United States are trying to improve regional cooperation but efforts have been undermined by a lack of resources, regional rivalries and a degree of local complicity.

Security experts say AQIM, as the Islamists are known in the region, have collected millions of dollars in ransom payments.

In what appeared to be a hardening of its position, France sent special forces soldiers to try to rescue two Frenchmen kidnapped in January. The pair were killed during the operation.

(Additional reporting and writing by John Irish, editing by Tim Pearce)