US President Barack Obama has taken a swipe at his French counterpart for allegedly paying ransoms to free French citizens held hostage by Islamic extremists, and then denying it.
The New York Times said that in a private briefing to journalists last week, Obama said that "the United States does not pay ransom to terrorists, but remarked with irritation that President François Hollande of France says his country does not, when in fact it does."
Obama, whose government has repeatedly criticised France on the issue of ransom payments, asserted that fewer Americans are kidnapped than other Westerners because the United States refuses to pay ransoms, the paper said.
The criticism came after two American journalists were killed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadis and just before videos of the beheading of a third Western hostage, Briton David Haines, emerged at the weekend.
In April, four French journalists were freed after lengthy spells in captivity after being abducted in Syria. France insisted at the time that it had not paid any ransom.
But a New York Times investigation this summer claimed that France has paid out $58 million to free hostages since 2008, putting it atop of the world rankings for ransom payments.
The article said France paid more ransoms than Switzerland ($12.4 million) and Spain ($5.9 million) and Austria ($3.2 million). The US and the UK have refused to pay ransoms.
Although the French government angrily denies it ever pays ransoms, critics say the policy is creating a lucrative hostage industry and that the proceeds are used to finance terrorist activities.
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.
Obama's criticism of Hollande came despite France signing up to the emerging international coalition tasked with fighting ISIS.
Hollande was due to host leaders and diplomats from more than 20 countries in Paris on Monday for talks on how to defeat the group that has conquered swathes of Syria and Iraq.
By : Rory Mulholland