FRANCE has insisted it will not negotiate with terrorists holding a French family of seven hostage in retaliation for French military intervention in Mali.
They are being held by gunmen of the Nigerian Islamist group, Boko Haram.
The three adults and four children were kidnapped while holidaying in north Cameroon near the Nigerian border last week.
In a video, posted online, the gunmen said France had declared war on Islam with its campaign in Mali and threatened to kill the hostages unless Nigeria and Cameroon freed militants being held there.
“We do not negotiate on that kind of basis, with these kind of groups,” defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday. “We will use all [other] possible means to ensure these and other hostages are freed.”
Mr Le Drian said the fighting was not close to an end and troops in Mali’s far north were facing stiff resistance from the “strongest and most organised” rebels, underscoring the risk of French and African forces being bogged down in guerrilla war.
The kidnapping brought to 15 the number of French citizens held in West Africa and highlighted the danger to French nationals in the region since Paris sent troops to Mali last month to help oust Islamist rebels.
It was the first abduction of foreigners in the mostly Muslim north of Cameroon, like Mali a former French colony. But the region is within the operational sphere of Boko Haram and allied Nigerian Islamists Ansaru. Boko Haram, one of several al-Qaeda-linked groups in the region, has killed hundreds of people in recent years in a bid to establish an Islamist state in Nigeria.
“The principle of terrorism is the same whether you are in Somalia with the al-Shabaab, in Mali with Ansar Dine or in Nigeria with Boko Haram or Ansaru,” Mr Le Drian said. “It’s the same system, the same methods, which threaten us.”
The video posted on Monday showed the hostages, including the four boys, surrounded by three gunmen wearing turbans and camouflage gear.
“The president of France has launched a war on Islam and we are fighting it everywhere,” said one of the kidnappers, calling himself a Boko Haram member.
In Mali, French and Chadian troops are encountering strong resistance from Islamists in the mountainous north, Mr Le Drian said. Chadian troops launched an offensive at the weekend against fighters in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border but suffered the heaviest losses since the offensive began last month.
Chad’s armed forces said some 23 of its soldiers and about 90 rebels were killed in the fighting. French fighter jets and helicopters were forced to support the Chadian offensive.
“The most fundamentalist elements are there,” Mr Le Drian said. “The strongest and most organised forces. We expected resistance and we’ve had some extremely violent battles.”
Paris intervened in its former Mali six weeks ago to stop a southward drive by Islamist fighters who seized control of the north last April.
After quickly driving the rebels out of major urban areas, France and its African allies have focused on the remote north-east – an area the size of France that includes networks of caves, passes and porous borders.
Asked about the timing for pulling out the 4,000 French troops, Mr Le Drian said it was hard to predict exactly. “If things evolve normally, we could begin leaving before the end of March,” he said, adding that the operation had cost about €100 million (£86m) so far.
Rebels have staged bombings and raids mainly targeting Mali’s poorly trained and equipped army in northern cities. A spokesman for Mali’s military yesterday said 37 soldiers had been killed and 138 injured since the start of the offensive. He said five Malian soldiers suspected of ethnic reprisals after the recapture of Timbuktu had been recalled to the capital, Bamako.
Meanwhile, former US president Bill Clinton has said Nigeria must do more to alleviate the extreme poverty across its mainly Muslim north in order to halt bombings, shootings and kidnappings by Islamists there.
“You have to somehow bring economic opportunity to the people who don’t have it,” he said at an awards ceremony in Abeokuta, Nigeria. “You have all these political problems – and now violence problems – that appear to be rooted in religious differences and the all the rhetoric of the Boko Harams and others, but the truth is the poverty rate in the north is three times of what it is in Lagos [Nigeria’s largest city].”