Abu Zeid’s claim appeared designed to stir French public opinion against President Francois Hollande’s government, which insists it is doing all it can to free the hostages but says it must act in secret, through clandestine intermediaries, if its efforts are to be effective.
The video sought to focus attention on Hollande’s determination to drive AQIM guerrillas and their allies from a vast sanctuary in northern Mali, following the passage last week by the U.N. Security Council of a French-sponsored resolution authorizing military intervention in northern Mali by a 3,300-strong force of soldiers from the Economic Community of West African States. The soldiers are to be trained and commanded by French officers. A French general with experience in Africa and Bosnia, Francois Lecointre, has been named to command the mission.
Abu Zeid’s group kidnapped four French technicians at a uranium mining center in northern Niger in September 2010. A year later, it abducted a pair of French geologists in Mali. “The hostages are alive, for the time being,” Abu Zeid said in the video.
The French Foreign Ministry did not respond directly to Abu Zeid’s declaration but vowed that the government would pursue its efforts to free the hostages. “French authorities continue to demand that our countrymen held hostage in the Sahel be released safe and sound, and they are fully mobilized to achieve that result,” said a ministry spokesman, Vincent Floreani.
About 400 European Union soldiers have been assigned, beginning next month, to train a 3,000-strong Malian army force that would be capable of redeployment to restore government authority in the stretches of northern Mali that have fallen under the control of AQIM forces.
Mali’s army was driven from the country’s northern region in March by Tuareg rebels allied with AQIM, who had long sought to break away from central government control. The area’s Tuareg inhabitants differ ethnically from the black Africans in the south. The Tuareg offensive met little real opposition, in part because, at the time, senior Malian army officers were in disarray because of an inconclusive military coup in Bamako, the capital.
Since then, the region — more than 250,000 square miles, including the storied city of Timbuktu — has turned into a haven for AQIM and related Islamist groups, which have imposed strict Islamic codes and largely pushed the Tuaregs aside.
France and the United States have vowed to restore Malian government authority, fearful that if they do not, the situation will evolve into a Sahelian version of Afghanistan. The Obama administration has left the leadership role to France but has pledged to provide transport and intelligence-gathering assistance.
Against that background, some of the hostages’ family members have expressed dissatisfaction with the discreet official efforts to liberate their loved ones. Hollande maintains that the threat of a military operation is the best way to pressure the hostage-takers, but that view has been hard for the waiting families to accept.
The brother of Pierre Legrand, one of the hostage technicians, sent a video to Abu Zeid’s group this month saying that family members were trying to persuade the French government to negotiate with more flexibility and calling on Abu Zeid to do the same. In his video, Abu Zeid said he had notified the French government a year ago of his readiness to negotiate but has not received a response.
“We do not understand why everything is blocked,” he said.
A seventh hostage was seized last month in Mali by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, a small AQIM spinoff. In a related kidnapping, a French technician was abducted this month in northern Nigeria by another Islamist group, called Ansaru. In a communique, it cited France’s ban on full Islamic veils and the preparations for a military operation in Mali.