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France suspects Al-Qaeda holding French hostages in Niger

AFP

France suspects that seven people kidnapped while working for French companies in Niger are in the hands of Al-Qaeda and are now being taken to a remote part of Mali, according to Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

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The hostages were seized on Thursday from the town of Arlit in the north of Niger, where France's national nuclear corporation Areva has a major uranium mine.

The kidnappers were Arabic-speaking gunmen driving pick-up trucks, according to officials in Niger.

"We think they're heading for Mali, but we don't really know. Surveillance has been stepped up. The Niger army is on a war footing. All our services have been put on alert," Kouchner told French radio.

The minister said that members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or Aqim - the same group that murdered a French hostage in July - were the most likely suspects, but stressed that no one had yet claimed responsibility.

The kidnappers themselves may have been mercenaries who will sell the hostages on to a terrorist group, he said.

France has not to date received any demands from the hostage-takers, the Foreign Ministry confirms.

Niger's army is searching for the hostages by air, according to a security source cited by news agency AFP. Neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have put their authorities on high alert in case the kidnappers attempt to move the hostages out of the country.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has asked the authorities in Niger to do all they can to free the hostages, and will put France's full military and diplomatic support behind them in order to do so, he said on Friday.

"And I will of course assure the families that France will do everything it can to free the hostages, as it does in every hostage-taking situation," Sarkozy said.

France pledged to step up its fight against terrorism in north Africa in July, following the execution of French aid worker Michel Germaneau.

Aqim responded with a direct threat against France.

Areva has decided to transfer its French staff to Niger's capital Niamey, Kouchner said, while a company spokesperson indicated that 20 of the group's employees had already left the country out of concern for their safety.

Local staff will continue to operate Areva's mines in Niger, which provide half of all France's nuclear fuel.

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