The families of four hostages being held by Al-Qaeda’s north African branch on Monday urged the French government to seek negotiations with the militant group in the hope of securing their relatives’ release.
The call was issued against a background of fears for the lives of the hostages following the reported killing of two Al-Qaeda-linked leaders by French-backed Chadian troops in Mali over the weekend.
“France must give AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) clear signals of a willingness to negotiate, in liaison with (the hostages’ employers) Areva and Vinci,” said a statement issued on behalf of the families of four hostages seized at a uranium mine in Niger in 2010.
According to Chadian officials, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of an assault on an Algerian gas plant that left 37 foreign hostages dead in January, and AQIM leader Abdelhamid Abou Zeid were killed last week in an assault on rebel bases in the Ifoghas mountains of northern Mali.
France has been extremely guarded about the reports, amid concerns the hostages may have been used as human shields or could be subject to reprisal executions.
The hostages’ families have repeatedly expressed concern about the possible consequences of France’s military intervention in its former colony but Monday’s statement was the first time they have publicly challenged the government’s approach.
“Today we consider that military operations and the use of force will not result in the hostages being saved,” said Rene Robert, the grandfather of Pierre Legrand, one of four hostages seized by AQIM in Niger in September 2010.
“We want a strong signal to be sent to AQIM to demonstrate a willingness to negotiate,” he told AFP.
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrived in Mali on Monday for a visit to meet French-backed African troops fighting Islamist militants for control of the west African country, his ministry said.
“My visit, the first by a British Foreign Secretary, underlines the UK’s strong commitment to work with international partners to support Mali and countries in the region on countering terrorism and restoring security in the country,” Hague said on his arrival in the capital Bamako.
He will hold talks with the president and prime minister of Mali as well as the west African country’s foreign minister during his visit.
Hague will also meet the commander of the African-led AFISMA force, as well as the deputy commander of the European mission which is training Malian forces.
Britain has supplied a Royal Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft and a surveillance plane to help French troops.
Britain is not sending combat troops, but it will also supply 40 personnel for the EU training mission in Mali, and up to 200 for a separate training force in neighboring English-speaking West African nations.
French and Chadian troops are currently hunting down Islamist rebels who were driven from northern Mali’s main cities by a lightning French-led offensive launched in mid-January.