France told to negotiate with Bin Laden over hostages

Al Qa'eda's North Africa branch says to free hostages captured in Niger, France must withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

PARIS // France is studying a message from the leader of al Qa'eda's North Africa branch saying the government should negotiate directly with Osama bin Laden over the fate of five French hostages seized from an African mining town.

In an audio excerpt broadcast on Thursday night by the Al Jazeera news channel, a man identified as Abu Mossab Abdelouadoud said that to ensure the safety of the hostages, French troops must also withdraw from Afghanistan.

"Any negotiations must be done with Osama bin Laden and according to his conditions," said a voice described as that of Abdelouadoud, who is also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel and under other names.

France's foreign ministry is studying the message to verify its authenticity, a ministry official said today.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's office did not immediately respond Friday to the audio message. The government had said previously it was willing to speak to the group's North African wing in order to find a solution to the crisis.

The message gave no details on how bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, could be contacted.

Bin Laden issued an audio message earlier this month criticising the French for having troops in Afghanistan and banning the face-covering veil.

The message broadcast yesterday repeated the call for the French to withdraw from Afghanistan and cease harming Muslims. France currently has around 3,850 troops stationed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO forces there.

Al Jazeera did not reveal how it came by the audio tape, but in the past it has received messages from affiliates of al Qa'eda around the region.

The French hostages, as well as a Togolese and a Madagascar national, were kidnapped on September 16 while they were sleeping in the uranium mining town of Arlit in Niger. Al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the abductions and is believed to have taken them to neighbouring Mali.