PARIS (AP) — A French citizen has been kidnapped in southwest Mali, far from the northern zone controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants that African countries are preparing to oust in a possible military intervention, officials said Wednesday.
The Tuesday evening kidnapping brings to seven the number of French citizens being held in the west African nation that is effectively divided into two, with Islamic militants controlling the vast northern desert region that the West fears could become a new base for jihad training.
The latest kidnapping made clear that no part of Mali is safe, and that the extremists are expanding their reach.
The extremist group MUJAO, one of the groups controlling northern Mali, is holding the hostage, according to an Islamist website in neighboring Mauritania. MUJAO has claimed responsibility for kidnappings before. Another group, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, has said it is holding four of the six other French hostages.
French President Francois Hollande suggested that the kidnapping could be a pressure tactic to try to thwart the planned military intervention to take back the North.
"I confirm that there was a kidnapping of a French citizen in southwest Mali ... not in the part where there is the most danger," Hollande said at a news conference, without elaborating. "To capture a hostage is a means to put pressure, a means that won't work."
Northern Mali fell to Islamist extremists in April, after coup leaders toppled the government in Bamako, Mali's capital. France has been a driving force behind an initiative for a potential military intervention by Mali's army, bolstered by other African troops, to drive the Islamists from power.
AQIM has thrived on millions of dollars in ransom money obtained for the release of kidnapped Westerners. Experts say that drug and other trafficking also fills the coffers of Islamist radicals.
Mauritania's Nouakchott Information Agency said the man kidnapped on Tuesday is Jules Berto Rodriguez Leal, a 61-year-old Portuguese-born Frenchman who left Mauritania on Tuesday around 11 a.m.
There was some confusion over the exact location of the kidnapping. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it took place in Nioro, a town just across the border from Mauritania, but a Malian police official said armed men kidnapped the Frenchman in the town of Diema, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the south, on the way to Bamako.
The police official said the victim was captured during a stop at a cafe on the road between Mali and Mauritania and on to Senegal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
"This was the safest road in Mali, but unfortunately today no place in Mali is safe," the official said.
Fabius reiterated a warning to French people not to travel to the region and said their country is doing its utmost, along with Bamako, to free the latest hostage.
Four of the French hostages were kidnapped in Niger in September 2010 while working with Areva and Vinci on uranium projects. Three were released.
The two other French were kidnapped in November 2011 in Mali.
Other Europeans and North Africans have also been kidnapped in the region. Several have been executed, including 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, killed in 2010.
Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.