France rejects negotiations with Osama bin Laden

FRANCE has rejected demands from an al-Qaeda cell holding five French hostages in northern Africa that it 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 after al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) head Abdelmalek Droukdel made the demands in an audio recording on Thursday.

His message said that France would have to negotiate personally with bin Laden to secure the release of five French hostages seized in Niger in September along with a Togolese and a Madagascan and believed held in Mali.  “France is doing all in its power for the hostages, wherever they are, to be freed safe and sound,” Alliot-Marie said in a statement.

Droukdel, alias Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud, 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”.  He did not provide details on how to contact bin Laden, believed to be hiding out in remote mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told AFP earlier that the recording “is being authenticated now”.  President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday said he was “especially worried” about the hostages, most of whom work for nuclear giant Areva and its subcontractors, but also said threats would not change French policy.

According to a translation of his tape by US monitoring group SITE Intelligence, Droukdel said: “(If you) want safety for your citizens who are held captive by us, then you have to hasten and take your soldiers out of Afghanistan according to a specific timetable that you announce officially.”

Bin Laden, in a recording aired by Al-Jazeera in late October, also said that France’s security would be compromised if it did not pull its 3750 soldiers out of Afghanistan.  He told France to treat the kidnapping as a warning and that a ban on the wearing of the Islamic veil in public places in France justified violence against its citizens.

French former defence 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.  “So the reference to bin Laden is something new, it’s something we haven’t seen before in other kidnappings of this kind.”

France said for the first time on Wednesday that it was in touch with the AQIM kidnappers.  “Of course there are all kinds of contact” with the hostage-takers, new Defence Minister Alain Juppe told Europe 1 radio, without giving more details.  “All the (French) authorities, the defence ministry, the foreign ministry, everyone is being extremely vigilant to make the necessary contact,” he said.

Asked if the hostages were believed to be safe, Juppe added: “Currently there is every reason to believe they are.”  AQIM in July said it had killed French hostage Michel Germaneau following a failed French-Mauritanian rescue bid which killed six AQIM militants.

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