Thursday, November 22, 2012

Islamists kidnap Frenchman in Mali

By AFP

BAMAKO,

Islamist fighters in northern Mali claimed responsibility Wednesday for the kidnapping of a French sexagenarian, bringing to 13 the number of hostages held in the war-torn region.

France warned its citizens against travelling to the troubled West African nation, where regional powers backed by France and the United States are mulling a military intervention to oust Al-Qaeda linked militia.

"With God's blessing, the mujahedin are holding a Frenchman, whose country wants to lead armies against the Muslim people," Abdoul Hicham, a top leader with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), told AFP.

He did not specify whether the hostage, who was named as Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, was snatched by his group or Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Islamist groups with links to Al-Qaeda conquered the entire north of Mali, an area the size of France or Texas, earlier this year when a coup in Bamako left a power vacuum in the vast desert north.

They have since enforced an extreme form of sharia -- flogging, amputating and sometimes executing violators -- and fuelled regional and global fears that northern Mali could become a major haven for terrorist groups.

The abduction, which took place in western Mali on Tuesday, brought to seven the number of hostages in Mali who hail from the former colonial power.

"We will do everything we can to find our citizen," French President Francois Hollande said.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged French citizens to avoid western Mali "where they will put their lives and safety in danger".

The 61-year-old Portuguese-born hostage, whose profession is unknown, was kidnapped in the town of Diema in the Kayes region after entering the country by car from neighbouring Mauritania, according to the Mauritanian news agency ANI.

The Kayes region, part of Mali's western border with Mauritanian and Senegal, is not part of the northern half of the country currently held by Islamist forces.

According to French sources, he was kidnapped in Nioro, further north.

About four years ago, an Italian-Burkinabe couple was kidnapped in the same region by the north African branch of Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, then freed months later in exchange for a ransom, security sources said.

A hunt is under way for Leal, a Malian security source said.

The other six French are all thought to be in the custody of AQIM, which is one of the three armed Islamist groups -- along with its offshoot MUJAO and Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) -- occupying northern Mali.

The Islamists have caused an international outcry by destroying ancient World Heritage Sites in Timbuktu, stoning a young unmarried couple to death, flagellating drinkers and smokers and forcing women under the veil.

Hollande implied Wednesday that the latest abduction could be linked to plans for military action in Mali, as France has played the lead role in pushing west African countries to intervene in the north.

"Taking hostages is a way of applying pressure but it will not influence our decisions," said Hollande, whose own life has been threatened by AQIM.

European Union foreign ministers on Monday agreed in principle to support a plan agreed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to send 3,300 troops into Mali to reconquer the north.

The plan must go before the UN Security Council by the end of the month.

Last month, a top AQIM official warned that any attempt to oust the Islamists in the north by military force would put the hostages' lives in danger.

"I want to tell the families of the hostages that the choice of war apparently made by Mr Hollande will inevitably mean that he has signed the death warrant of the French hostages," said Yahya Abou El Hamame, the AQIM's "emir of the Sahel".

Before the latest abduction, AQIM was holding hostage nine Europeans, including six French people, kidnapped in September 2010 and November 2011, while the MUJAO had at least three Algerian hostages.

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