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DUBAI (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's north African branch released messages from four French hostages it kidnapped in Niger, who called for France to respond to the militant group's demand that France withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
A tape, released on Islamist forums late on Tuesday, showed pictures of each of the hostages, who were taken in September. They were kneeling at gunpoint next to men, their faces hidden, holding Kalashnikov rifles.
Each gave the same audio message, dated between April 11 and 13.
"We implore the president of the French republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, to answer favourably al Qaeda's demands for France to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan because the French really have no interest in the war in Afghanistan."
Seven foreigners, including five French employees of Areva and Vinci, were kidnapped in Niger in September. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the north African wing of the militant group, claimed responsibility.
In Paris, Laurent Wauquiez, the secretary of state for European affairs, said: "The first thing we need to do is analyse the video and notably make sure it proves the hostages are alive.
"Secondly, we're doing everything, and I mean everything we can to get the hostage released," he told RMC radio. "As you can imagine, French foreign policy is not dictated by hostage-takers."
Global al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden released a statement in January calling on Sarkozy to withdraw French troops to secure the release of the foreigners kidnapped in Niger. France's foreign ministry responded then by expressing "France's commitment to the international force in Afghanistan."
Three of the hostages, a Togolese, a Malagasy and the French wife of an Areva employee were released in February.
In March, France said it would not negotiate after AQIM demanded a ransom of 90 million euros ($127 million) to release the remaining four. Security experts say AQIM has previously collected millions of dollars in ransom payments.
Experts also say al Qaeda, and in particular AQIM, could pose a growing threat not just to French interests in Africa's Sahel but also in France itself, especially if it uses ransom money to develop cells on French territory.
Unlike Britain and Spain, France has never been attacked by al Qaeda at home, despite being a NATO member that took part in the invasion of Afghanistan and still has troops there.
(Reporting by Erika Solomon in Dubai and Patrick Vignal in Paris; editing by Robert Woodward)
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