Bin Laden's death provokes caution over French hostages in Niger

13:35, May 06, 2011      

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by Sonia Ounissi

France joined other allies of the United States in hailing the death of Osama bin Laden but its relief at the infamous terrorist's death was mixed with concern for four French hostages held by al-Qaida's north Africa branch.

France has been the target of al-Qaida terrorist threats over policies seen as unfairly targeting Muslims, such as the recent banning of women wearing the burqa in public, and its involvement in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The country raised its terrorism alert after al-Qaida in North Africa (AQIM) kidnapped seven employees of French firms Areva and Satom in the African country of Niger on Sept. 16. Five of them are French nationals. Three were released in February.

Speaking to the government-run TV channel France 2, Prime Minister Francois Fillon could give no clear picture Wednesday over the hostages' fate after bin Laden's death.

"Nobody can today tell us about the eventual repercussions of (bin Laden's death) on the hostages' situation," he said.

Instead, Fillon asked French citizens to avoid "risk areas," particularly in the Sahel region of North Africa, where the four remaining French hostages are being held by AQIM.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was likewise unprepared to guess what bin Laden's unpredictable followers in North Africa might do.

"We can say that this (bin Laden's death) will discourage them and we can say that it will radicalize them. In reality, we know nothing," Juppe said.

However, France's top diplomat was more positive about the impact on negotiations to free two journalists held captive in Afghanistan since December 2009.

"I have no information allowing me to think that what happened has blocked the difficult negotiation process underway," he told reporters.

To protect the Niger hostages, the French government has declined to give details on the negotiations with AQIM. It has refused to pay ransoms or bow to AQIM conditions.

"We are extremely careful because it can be favorable or unfavorable elements according to the immediate reactions," Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told French news channel BFM TV.

"The death of bin Laden is a little hope and a positive factor for the internal Afghans' debate but I think the contrary concerning AQIM. In the Sahel region, they don't have the same logic as the Pakistani-Afghan one. They will continue their policy of blackmail and pressure," the minister said.

France has not raised its terror alert level, which remains at red, the second-highest rank, but called for tighter security measures at embassies and in French companies operating in dangerous and sensitive areas.

Source: Xinhua
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