A former U.S. diplomat says France channeled millions of dollars in ransom payments to the Islamist militants it is now fighting in Mali.
Vicki Huddleston, the former U.S. ambassador to Mali, spoke in an interview which aired Friday on the French television station iTele.
Huddleston said France paid $17 million to secure the release of French citizens kidnapped by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb ((A.Q.I.M.) in northern Niger in 2010.
The former ambassador said the payments were made indirectly, with the money ending up in the hands of the Malian government. She says at least part of the payment was then turned over to militants who used the money to purchase weapons and recruit.
Claude Gueant, who served as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's chief of staff, denied that France made ransom payments. He told iTele that intermediaries negotiated to free the hostages.
French President Francois Hollande has not commented on Huddleston's allegations. But on the sidelines of an European Union meeting in Brussels on Friday, he referenced seven French hostages currently held in the Sahel region.
He said France is seeking contacts but that, in his words, "the question of finances cannot be raised" to secure the hostages' freedom.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington shares a concern with Huddleston that al-Qaida and other militant groups use hostage-taking as a means of financial support.
Huddleston said other countries had paid ransoms that financed the armed Islamist groups which seized control of northern Mali last year. She said the figure that she had "seen in print" was about $89 million.
She said while governments have denied paying ransoms, "everyone" was aware that money had "passed hands indirectly, through different accounts" and had ended up in the "treasury" of groups such as A.Q.I.M.
In the interview, Huddleston praised France for launching the January military intervention in Mali that resulted in the ouster of Islamist militants from their strongholds in the country's north. Huddleston said she believed the French had "saved" Mali, a former French colony.
Huddleston served as U.S. ambassador to Mali from 2002 to 2005.