SAHARA-QAEDA-THREAT:Al Qaeda Africa wing threatens to kill western hostages
By Laurent Prieur
NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's North African wing said it will kill its European hostages if France and its allies attack its bases in northern Mali, according to a statement carried by Mauritania's ANI news agency on Thursday.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is believed to be holding nine western hostages, including six French nationals, seized in Mali and Niger since September 2010.
"We are warning all of the countries concerned, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden, that participation or approval of these imminent operations against mujahideen in northern Mali would be a death warrant for their citizens," according to a translation of the Arabic statement.
AQIM last month claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of five foreigners, including two Frenchmen and three others from undisclosed European countries, from the north of Mali in November and posted photos on an Islamist website.
The two images showed the hostages, some of them bound with rope, surrounded by masked men holding guns.
The group also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of five French nationals in northern Niger in September 2010, one of whom was later released.
Two separate attempts by French forces to rescue its nationals from AQIM's grip have so ended far in failure with the death of the hostages in July 2010 and in January last year.
Africa's Sahel region has become a haven for al Qaeda-linked operatives taking advantage of the vast and lawless area, and is believed to have raked in millions of dollars in ransoms. Mauritania's army has launched a series of attacks on AQIM bases inside Mali in recent months.
The United Nations and security experts have expressed concern that a flow of weapons and ex-combattants from Libya's war could strengthen al Qaeda operatives in the Sahara.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Myra MacDonald)