By Jemal Oumar
Negotiations are under way to free four French hostages kidnapped in Niger and held by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) since September 2010.
“We recently had news of the hostages, they are separated, but they are doing well,” AFP quoted the negotiator as saying. The October 7th report said the AQIM hostage demands were a 90 million euro ransom and the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan.
The latest report is consistent with recent statements by Nigerien Prime Minister Brigi Rafini. In an October 4th interview with La Francophonie Secretary-General Abdou Diaouf, the prime minister confirmed the hostages were alive.
“We have information about the situation, where there are four French nationals who were abducted on our territory more than a year ago, and they are still alive and enjoying good health,” Rafini said according to the website Niger Diaspora.
Three of the seven foreigners snatched in Arlit were freed in February, The remaining French hostages are allegedly being held in Mali’s Timetrine region (100km from the Algerian border) by Abdel Hamid Abou Zeid, leader of the “Taregh ibn Ziyad” brigade.
The katibate is one of four such brigades operating in al-Qaeda’s Southern Zone, which stretches from northeast Mauritania to Somalia. Abou Zeid was responsible for beheading British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010.
Regarding whether he had conclusive evidence, the Nigerien minister expressed reservations, saying, “It is hard to talk about precise and certain details in this regard, but our information points in this direction.”
In a statement to Magharebia, Timbuktu-based journalist Abdul Hamid Ansari said that “the Malian government was certain that the nationals are still alive, and this news is a matter of optimism about their imminent release”. But he added that the news of the demand that French troops leave Afghanistan was a “major challenge to completing the process”.
“Al-Qaeda wants to add this latter condition to improve its image by appearing as though they are not just gangs looking for money,” analyst Abdullah Ould Issa said. “But at the same time, they want to prove to the world that they speak from positions of a distinct entity with a message to the Muslim peoples aligned with the messages of Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, who in their speeches focused on guiding the Muslim people and inviting them to take positions demonstrating their allegiance to them.”
“The outcome of the negotiations is closely linked to the approaching French presidential elections, where failure to release the nationals will put the current French government in a difficult position,” analyst Bashir Ould Babanah said.
Abdullah expressed his optimism about the negotiation. “The mediation led by Niger with Malian support at the level of the Presidency of the Republic and the regional authorities within these two countries, in addition to the support of the three head mediators, among them a retired French military officer, all of this indicates that the nationals will be released.”
“The demand for ransom has two dimensions,” he added. “The first is al-Qaeda’s need for funds to finance its movements and the second is to satisfy the general feelings among its members that they are able to impose tribute.”