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French Government in Contact with al-Qaida in Mali

France's Defense Minister Alain Juppe arrives prior to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, 17 Nov 2010

A French minister said Tuesday the country is in contact with the kidnappers of seven hostages held by al-Qaida's north African wing in Mali.

French Defense Minister Alain Juppe was speaking on French RTL radio. He said there is contact with the kidnappers but he said the best way to make negotiations fail would be to make the contact public.

Seven hostages were seized in September from a Niger uranium-mining town. Five are French nationals and the other two are from Togo and Madagascar.

They are believed to be in the hands of al-Qaida militants in the Sahel region of northern Africa. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, said in a video message last week that the hostages' safety depended on France withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. France has just under 4,000 soldiers involved in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan.

The video message also called for France to negotiate directly with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Claire Spencer from the London-based research group Chatham House says the French government's public discussion of the case may be deliberate.

"I think it may be a possible way that the French want to encourage greater international attention to the seriousness of this threat. And galvanize, if you like, regional cooperation to prevent further kidnappings," said Spencer.

She says AQIM is not necessarily a large group but that may not be a drawback. So far, she says, international attempts to wipe it out have largely failed.

"The American AFRICOM force has for a number of years now been training up local security forces in Mali and Niger, obviously Mauritania where a lot of this goes on in order to be better prepared to track and prevent al-Qaida attacks. But with a few of them who are able so far it seems to hide themselves in the desert region, so far this has not been entirely successful," said Spencer.

Earlier this year AQIM kidnapped and later killed a 78-year-old French aid worker.