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France rejects demands from al Qaeda hostage-takers

France has rejected demands from an al Qaeda cell calling for the country to pull out its troops from Afghanistan. The hostage-takers said France must negotiate the release of hostages with Osama bin Laden directly.

hostages

The hostages were seized during the night in September

France on Friday rejected demands from an al Qaeda cell holding five French hostages in northern Africa that it should negotiate their freedom with Osama bin Laden and pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

"France cannot accept that its policy be dictated by anyone outside," new Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in a statement after Abdelmalek Droukdel, head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), made the demands in an audio recording on Thursday.

The message listed demands to secure the release of five French hostages seized in Niger in September along with a Togolese and a Madagascan.

The recording, broadcast by Arab satellite network Al Jazeera, said that to ensure the hostages' safety, France must "hasten and take [its] soldiers out of Afghanistan according to a specific timetable that [France announces] officially."

Bin Laden, in a recording aired by Al Jazeera in late October, also said France's security would be compromised if it did not pull its 3,750 soldiers out of Afghanistan.

He told France to treat the kidnapping as a warning and that a ban on the wearing of the burqa in public places in France justified violence against its citizens.

New reference to bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

Hostage-takers said France should negotiate with bin Laden directly

Droukdel, alias Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud, also said that "any form of negotiations on this issue in the future will be done with no one other than our Sheikh Osama bin Laden... and according to his terms."

Former Defense Minister Herve Morin, who was closely following the hostage crisis until losing his portfolio during a reshuffle last week, said the reference to bin Laden in Thursday's recording was new.

"Withdrawing French troops from Afghanistan is a kind of classic, traditional demand for all kinds of attacks," he told France Info radio.

"What's new is the reference to bin Laden. Generally, and particularly with AQIM, it's more of a franchise. There isn't an al Qaeda kind of holding company with a number of subsidiaries. It's not as structured as that."

France said for the first time Wednesday that it was in touch with the AQIM kidnappers.

"Of course there are all kinds of contact [with the hostage-takers], new Defense Minister Alain Juppe told Europe 1 radio, without giving more details.

"All the [French] authorities, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, everyone is being extremely vigilant to make the necessary contact," he said.

Presumed safe

Asked if the hostages were believed to be safe, Juppe added that there was "currently...every reason to believe they are."

The five French hostages were seized in Niger in September along with a Togolese and a Madagascan and are believed to be held in neighboring Mali. The French hostages are an engineer working for nuclear giant Areva and his wife, and several employees of a subcontractor.

President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday said he was "especially worried" about the hostages, but also said threats would not change French policy.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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