France says it won't negotiate to free kidnapped family
JOHANNESBURG -- The stakes are high for France: the lives of four French children, their parents, a relative and nine other French hostages being held by al-Qaida-linked militants in Nigeria and Mali.
But France, entrenched in a war in Mali to drive out several violent Islamist militias, refused to blink Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French radio his government would not negotiate for the release of a French family of tourists. His remarks came after a shocking video surfaced Monday on YouTube, showing masked gunmen in camouflage standing over their captives: four boys, their parents and the boys' uncle.
The mother of the children, Albane Moulin-Fournier, looking drawn and haggard, wore an Islamic headcover. Her four sons, Eloi, Andeol, Mael and Clarence, sat cross-legged behind one of three gunmen shown in the three-minute video. Behind them was a crudely painted black flag with two AK-47s and the Koran.
The boy's father, Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, works in Cameroon for a French gas company. The family was on vacation and had visited a nature reserve in northwest Cameroon with Moulin-Fournier's brother, Cyril Moulin-Fournier, when they were taken hostage last Tuesday.
The gunmen threatened to kill the family if the group's demands were not met. It's not clear when the video was made.
"We do not negotiate on that kind of basis, with these kind of groups. We will use all possible means to ensure these and other hostages are freed," Le Drian said in a radio interview. "We do not play this bidding game, because that's terrorism."
He also ruled out any swift withdrawal from Mali, where French forces are fighting intense battles to dislodge militias from redoubts in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, a region covering about 96,000 square miles in the northeast of the country.
Although Le Drian stood firm against the kidnappers' demands, the French government is in a delicate position, given the group's threat to kill the children. Executions of French hostages could turn public opinion against the intervention in Mali, which has already cost $133 million.
France intervened at Mali's request last month after al-Qaida-linked militias, which last year seized control of more than half the country, swooped south to take several towns in central Mali.
The kidnappers mentioned French military intervention in Mali as one motive for the kidnappings. One of the adult male hostages read a statement saying the gunmen were from Boko Haram, a militia in northern Nigeria. He said they wanted the release of male and female members of the militia in Cameroon and Nigeria. (French officials have also said they believe that Boko Haram is responsible.)
The kidnapping was the first by Islamist militias in Cameroon, indicating the ability of terror groups to cross the region's porous borders and evade security forces. The Nigerian gunmen seized the hostages last week, and took them on motorcycles into northern Nigeria without detection, officials said.
The rise in al-Qaida-linked terror groups in northern and western Africa has destroyed tourism in the region and in some cases undermined humanitarian work.
Boko Haram has a history of bombings and attacks on security forces, politicians and Christians. In 2011, it launched an attack on the United Nations' Nigeria headquarters in Abuja, killing more than 20 people.
It is fighting for sharia law to be imposed across Nigeria, a country of 150 million people, divided between the mainly Christian south and mainly Muslim north. It opposes secular education and modern Western innovations, including automatic teller machines in banks.
Boko Haram is also suspected of involvement in the killings of at least nine female health workers in the most populous northern Nigerian city, Kano. The women were administering polio shots.
French citizens are particularly vulnerable to kidnappings by militias in West Africa, where there are many former French colonies. However, many people from other nationalities have been taken hostage, with ransoms now a big business used to bankroll militias.
In a bid to help contain the militias in northern Mali, and elsewhere in the region, President Barack Obama last week announced he was deploying 100 U.S. troops to Niger to establish a drone base. Niger borders Mali, Algeria, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Benin and Burkino Faso.
France has issued a warning calling on all of its citizens to leave northern Cameroon.