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HOSTAGES

Al-Qaeda issue ‘credible’ video of French hostages

Al-Qaeda's north African branch has released a video purporting to show seven kidnapped Westerners including four Frenchmen, the Mauritanian news agency ANI reported on Monday, footage France's foreign ministry deemed "credible".

Al-Qaeda issue 'credible' video of French hostages
The seven hostages, including four French nationals who were kidnapped in Niger exactly three years ago. Photo:AFP

The hostages are four Frenchmen kidnapped from a uranium compound in northern Niger exactly three years ago along with a Dutchman, a Swede and a South African who were abducted from Timbuktu in northern Mali in November 2011.

"Based on an initial analysis, the video seems credible to us and provides new proof of life of the four French hostages kidnapped in Arlit (northern Niger) on September 16, 2010," foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said, adding that the footage was being authenticated.

In the video, released to the Mauritanian news agency ANI, Frenchman Daniel Larribe introduces himself as the head of the French group and says he was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

ANI reported on its website that he was speaking on June 27 and said he was in good health.

The video includes statements from Arribe's compatriots Pierre Legrand, Thierry Dol and Marc Feret as well as South African Stephen Malcolm, Dutchman Sjaak Rijke and Swede Johan Gustafsson.

"Of course we react positively every time we see that they are alive and in relatively good health," said Legrand's grandfather Rene Robert.

AQIM is currently thought to be holding eight Europeans hostage, including five French nationals.

Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2011 and found dead earlier this year, was executed with a shot to the head, according to French prosecutors.

Dol, Larribe, Legrand and Feret – mostly working for French public nuclear giant Areva and its subcontractor Satom – were kidnapped on September 16, 2010.

Daniel's wife Francoise Larribe was also captured but was released in 2011.

A fifth French hostage, Serge Lazarevic, was kidnapped along with Verdon in the night of November 24, 2011 at their hotel in Hombori.

Their families have insisted they were not mercenaries or secret service agents.

French President Francois Hollande said in July that France was "doing everything" to bring the hostages back but "will not talk so as not to complicate a situation which is bad enough".

In the video the French hostages reportedly urge Hollande's administration as well as family members to work for their release.

"I am in good health," Larribe was quoted as saying by ANI in a brief statement that also referenced France's intervention in Mali earlier this year.

France sent troops into its former colony Mali in January to repel a sweeping Islamist occupation by groups linked to Al-Qaeda including AQIM which was threatening an assault on the capital Bamako.

AQIM grew out of a movement launched in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists who sought the overthrow of the Algerian government to be replaced with Islamic rule.

The organisation linked to Al-Qaeda in 2006 and has spun a tight network across tribes, clans, family and business lines that stretches across the vast Sahel region abutting the southern Sahara desert.

During the nearly year-long 2012 occupation of northern Mali – which borders Mauritania – AQIM and its allies Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) used ANI as a conduit for information.

Threats to retaliate against the French-led military intervention which ousted the Islamists have also filtered through ANI and other sites boasting a vast network of informants and correspondents in the Sahel region.

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TERRORISM

‘Terrorists’ attack French soldiers in troubled Mali

French soldiers operating in troubled northern Mali were targeted by "terrorists" in an ambush on Sunday, the third attack in the country in just days.

'Terrorists' attack French soldiers in troubled Mali
Smoke and flames ascend from an army armoured vehicle in Gao, northwestern Mali, following an explosion on Sunday. Photo: STRINGER / AFP
The ambush underscores the fragile security situation in the West African nation as it prepares to go to the polls on July 29th.
 
A spokesman for the French military said there were no deaths among the French troops but it was not known if there were other casualties in the attack, which took place in the restive Gao region.
 
“French soldiers of the Barkhane military operation were ambushed by terrorists” near the town of Bourem, a Western military source told AFP, referring to the French mission in the country. 
 
A Malian military source confirmed the incident, which came two days after a deadly attack on the Mali headquarters of a five-nation regional force known as G5 Sahel.
 
Fatouma Wangara, a resident of Gao, said the French convoy was clearly targeted by a suicide car bomb.
 
“An armoured vehicle blocked the way and the car blew up,” she said.
 
Another resident told AFP that the area around the ambush had been sealed off by French soldiers.
 
The attack came as over 40 African heads of state are meeting for an African Union summit in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott with security high on the agenda.
 
'Hit the heart' of regional security
 
On Friday, a suicide attack on the headquarters of the regional Sahel force known as G5 killed two soldiers and a civilian in the Malian town of Savare. The Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel, claimed Friday's bombing in a telephone call to the Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar. And on Saturday, four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine in the central Mopti region.
 
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, whose country is part of the G5 and is hosting the two-day AU summit, warned earlier that security failings were hampering the work of the Sahel force. He said Friday's attack “hit the heart” of the region's security and lashed out at a lack of international help.
 
The G5 aims to have a total of 5,000 troops from five nations — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — but has faced funding problems. It operates alongside France's 4,000 troops in the troubled “tri-border” area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, and alongside the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.
 
Mali's unrest stems from a 2012 ethnic Tuareg separatist uprising, which was exploited by jihadists in order to take over key cities in the north. The extremists were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.  But large stretches of the country remain out of the control of the foreign and Malian forces, which are frequent targets of attacks, despite a peace accord signed with Tuareg leaders in mid-2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.
 
The violence has also spilled over into both Burkina Faso and Niger.