Al-Qaeda has warned Paris not to attempt to rescue five French nationals kidnapped by the jihadists in Niger, SITE monitoring group said Thursday, as France mobilized its forces to find them.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb posted a statement on jihadist forums in which it said the kidnappings came in the "context of retaliation" promised by AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud to France, the U.S.-based group said.
SITE said the statement carried a warning to France that they should not attempt another rescue mission "like they had done for Michel Germaneau."
AQIM militants have made increasing threats against France and its citizens since a July deadly Sahara raid in a bid to rescue French hostage Michel Germaneau in which seven of its members were killed.
The group said it had executed the 78-year-old as a reprisal for the raid, vowing further revenge against France.
Gunmen seized the five French nationals along with a Togolese and a Madagascan on September 16 in a raid on French firms working in northern Niger's uranium fields. France says it believes they are still alive.
They are now thought to have taken the captives to a remote corner of Mali.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday that France will mobilize all its organs of state to ensure the release of hostages.
"As the president just said, all the services of the state are mobilized to obtain the freedom of the hostages," French government spokesman Luc Chatel told reporters after Sarkozy chaired a weekly cabinet meeting.
Many of the states of North and West Africa, including Niger, Algeria, Mali and Mauritania, are former French colonies, and France has military trainers working along some of the local troops.
SITE quoted AQIM as saying in the statement that Western companies "that steal our wealth and take advantage of our people should know that they are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen and they should leave promptly, because our land is not a field for plunder and our wealth is not something to be taken advantage of."
As the president just said, all the services of the state are mobilized to obtain the freedom of the hostages
French government spokesman Luc Chatel
In Paris, AQIM's claim to have abducted the seven was authenticated, but no demands had been received from the hostage-takers.
"We have not received proof of life, but we have good reasons to believe the hostages are alive," French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said on Wednesday after AQIM claimed responsibility.
In Bamako, Mali's 50th independence day celebrations Wednesday were overshadowed by the hostage crisis, with high-level talks between regional heads of state expected to focus on the security problems posed by the north African cell of Osama bin Laden's network.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, due to meet with his Malian counterpart President Amadou Toumani Toure in Bamako, said that military interventions had been ruled out "at this stage".
Mali has been denounced in the past by Algeria and Mauritania as a weak link in the fight against AQIM.
In Washington, U.S. officials said France had asked for its assistance in hunting down the militants, amid reports that the Pentagon operates a listening post in southern Algeria to monitor regional radio and telephone traffic.
France did not confirm US assets were involved in the hunt, but said it was working "with all the governments involved in fighting terrorism in the Sahel."
The small AQIM army has spun a tight network across the Sahel, raking in millions from kidnappings and drug trafficking, killing several hostages and carrying out attacks across the six countries it spans.
We have not received proof of life, but we have good reasons to believe the hostages are alive
French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal
Nigerian rebels claim to locate kidnapped French workers
Nigeria's most prominent militant group has claimed it has located three French oil workers kidnapped from their ship after an attack that led to a two-hour gun battle with authorities.
The country's military searched Thursday for four victims -- a Thai national was also kidnapped -- after an attack that saw abductors approach an oil platform in speedboats, then switch to another vessel to cover their tracks.
"The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) can confirm that it has located the three abducted French nationals and another individual abducted in a separate incident on the same night," the militant group said in a statement late Wednesday.
MEND, which has carried out similar attacks in the past and has also been seen as an umbrella group for local armed gangs in the oil-producing Niger Delta, said it was negotiating with the abductors to have the victims transferred to them.
"When this is done, we will be in a better position to give further information about their state of health and the duration of their stay with us."
Wednesday's kidnapping, the second hostage drama for French energy workers in West Africa in less than a week, occurred despite an amnesty deal in the Niger Delta that has seen thousands of ex-fighters give up their weapons.
French and Nigerian officials said they suspected the kidnapping was purely criminal -- unlike last week's abduction of French nationals in the neighbouring nation of Niger, claimed by Al-Qaeda's north Africa branch.
"Everything points to it being a classic act of piracy," French Defence Minister Herve Morin said.
No ransom demands have been made yet.
"At this time we have not received demands," said French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal.
The early morning raid began with attackers trying to approach an oil platform off Bonny Island, Nigeria's main export terminal.
The abductors had first arrived in the area on speedboats, then boarded an oil services ship to disguise themselves, Navy spokesman David Nabaida said. It was unclear how they had access to the ship.
As they approached the platform, a navy deployment guarding oil installations in the area sought to push them back and a heavy gun battle ensued.
The militants pulled away from the platform and abducted the Thai victim from a nearby ship, he said. He was unclear of the details of the kidnapping of the French victims.
"They (the attackers) were very well armed," Nabaida said. "There was a serious exchange of gunfire between them and our men for close to two-and-a-half-hours."
While MEND said the French crew and another victim were taken in separate incidents, it did not provide details or the nationality of the fourth person.
The French sailors' employer, maritime services firm Bourbon, said they were abducted when pirates equipped with several speedboats attacked their 2,200-ton tug and supply ship.
Bourbon said its boat had been working on a field owned by Addax Petroleum, a Swiss-based subsidiary of the Chinese energy and chemical giant Sinopec.
The firm and the French government services have "fully rallied around to secure the release of our compatriots," said Nadal.
After the seaways off Somalia, the Gulf of Guinea south of Nigeria is one of the world's most notorious pirate hunting grounds, and ships working in the region's huge oil industry have often been targeted by kidnap gangs.
Some gangs have been purely criminal, while others, including MEND, claimed to be fighting for a fairer distribution of oil revenue.
Nigeria is among the world's largest oil producers, but its government has been unable to provide basic services, including adequate electricity, and poverty remains widespread.
The amnesty deal offered last year has led to a sharp decline in attacks, but some fear a return of unrest if the program is not followed through