France ‘world’s top payer’ of ransoms for hostages

France has paid out $58 million to free hostages since 2008, putting it top of the world rankings for ransom payments, according to a media report. Although the French government has angrily denied the claims, critics says the policy is creating a lucrative hostage industry.

France 'world’s top payer' of ransoms for hostages
Did France pay a ransom to free four hostages who spent three years in captivity. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

Officially France says it does not negotiate with terrorists for the release of hostages but an investigation by the New York Times has backed up the oft-made claims that France is the most likely country to pay up.

The claims have angered the French government, who once again insisted to The Local on Wednesday that "France does not pay ransoms".

But the American daily claims that since 2008 France has handed over $58 million in ransom payments for the release of numerous hostages. That put France top of the ransom rankings of European countries above Switzerland ($12.4 million) and Spain ($5.9 million) and Austria ($3.2 million). The US and the UK have refusedto pay ransoms.

These millions have become the principal source of funding for extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda, the newspaper said, repeating an argument made by David Cohen, US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in 2012.

The New York Times said former hostages and high level diplomats from various countries confirmed the figures on ransom payments.

Following the kidnapping of an entire French family in Cameroon last year France became the country with the most nationals being held hostage by terrorist groups around the world.

But since then various hostages have been freed, amid claims that huge ransoms were paid for their release.

In October last year The Local reported how the French government was forced to angrily deny reports it had handed over €20 million to free four hostages in Niger.

French daily Le Monde, citing a source close to the operation to free the men, published the claims.

The source, who talked about an eight-day operation to free the men, said the money was paid out of three secret bank accounts.

Another source, close to the Nigerien negotiating team, quoted by AFP, said between €20 and €25 million was paid.

The money went to the hostage-takers and to intermediaries on the ground who played a key role in securing the release, the source added.

Experts have said that while paying ransoms means a happy ending for the hostages and their families, it simple puts others at risk of the same fate by creating a kidnapping industry.

"If you pay ransoms to kidnappers, then there's a potential industry in hostage-taking," Geoff Porter, the head of New York-based North Africa Risk Consulting told AFP.

“Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow in counter-terrorism at the Royal United Services Institute added: "The long-term effects of this are that, first, the groups will probably do it again and second, it gives the organisation money… to swell its coffers," he said.

Pantucci said that in many cases ransom payments were made not by governments but by employers and family members, making them more difficult to oversee.

And experts said it was easy understand why many governments want to keep all options on the table when it comes to rescuing hostages.

"At the end of the day, it's awfully difficult to look into the eyes of family members of hostages and say that as a matter of principle we are going to let them die," Porter, from North Africa Risk Consulting said.

The French government, as perhaps would be expected, has continued to deny it pays for the release of hostages. 

"We have no position other than the one repeatedly affirmed by the President of the Republic and the Minister of Foreign Affairs: France does not pay ransoms," a foreign office spokesman told The Local on Wednesday.

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