The language used in a purported message from al-Qaida's North Africa arm that threatens to kill European hostages if governments take military action to save them suggests it is an authentic warning, a top French counterterrorism official said Thursday.
The Mauritanian news agency ANI says it obtained the alleged statement from Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which says that militants had intelligence suggesting French and Algerian troops were planning a rescue mission.
The statement, reported Thursday, warned that the hostages would face "execution" if their governments approved any military action. The captives, from France, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden, were kidnapped in Mali last year.
The French counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, told The Associated Press that Paris is taking the issue seriously.
French officials declined to comment about whether a French-backed military operation was under way to rescue the hostages, or whether they were in contact with the hostage-takers.
The statement suggested that AQIM wants a peaceful resolution of the standoff over the hostages. It says the group wants governments to reconsider their policies toward the fighters. But the statement's authenticity could not be independently confirmed.
According to SITE, a group that monitors militant media, the statement read: "We send a clear warning to the concerned governments of France, Britain, Holland and Sweden, that their approval of the imminent military operation against the mujahideen in northern Mali will be considered a signature from them for the execution of their citizens and the abandonment of their responsibility in preserving the lives of their citizens."
AQIM emerged in 2006 when Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network linked with Algerian extremists still active after an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. AQIM has since expanded across a lightly populated swath of northwest Africa, and is believed to earn millions from kidnapping for ransoms and smuggling.
Associated Press writer Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, contributed to this report.