PARIS (Reuters) - Four French men kidnapped by al Qaeda militants in northern Niger almost two years ago appeared in a video on Saturday appealing to French President Francois Hollande and their employers to continue negotiations to secure their release.
The seven-minute video, posted on a Mauritanian news website, shows the four men - Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dole and Marc Ferret - looking healthy and kneeling in a desert setting with armed men in traditional Bedouin clothing and turbans standing over them carrying kalashnikov rifles.
The video is the first evidence to emerge in nearly 18 months proving the hostages kidnapped by al-Qaeda’s north African arm (AQIM) are alive.
France’s Foreign Ministry said the men shown in the video were the French hostages named and it was working to authenticate when the footage was shot.
“We are Wednesday, August 29 and it will soon be two years we’re here. I am in good health and I am well treated,” Larribe, the oldest of the four men, said in the video.
The four were among seven people working for French nuclear group Areva AREVA.PA and Sogea-Satom, a subsidiary of construction group Vinci (SGEF.PA), who were kidnapped in September 2010 in the town of Arlit in Niger’s northern uranium mining zone.
Larribe’s wife, a Togolese and a Malagasy man were freed the February following their kidnap.
The kidnappers have demanded a 90 million euro ransom for the return of the hostages, which was dismissed by the previous French government which said it would not negotiate with AQIM.
Ferret in the video urged the French government to begin talking to al Qaeda to free them.
“Two years have passed. It’s not normal. Have you forgotten me? I was in Arlit for a precise goal and not for tourism.”
The youngest of the four, Legrand, looks more drained in the video than the other three.
“Two years is difficult whether it’s health or morale. I am tired. You must do something with al-Qaeda so I can come home,” he said in the footage.
The four men are each shown against different backgrounds and the armed men behind them are not the same, suggesting they may have been separated. It is not known whether men are still being held in Niger or have been moved to a neighbouring country in the Sahel region.
Christine Cauhape, Ferret’s sister, told BFM-TV the French government had to do more to ensure the men were released.
“We are fed up with this ... of not doing much or the minimum. We are going to ask the president, government and firms to do something to get them out,” she said.
The Sahara Medias website which carried the video is widely regarded as one of the more reliable news portals in Mauritania and has a strong network of contacts with Islamists in the region. It has previously shown videos of kidnapped hostages.
AQIM, which operates across West and North Africa’s vast Sahara desert, now controls with its Islamist allies the northern two-thirds of Mali, which borders Niger. It also holds two other French hostages.
Mathieu Guidere, an al-Qaeda specialist at the University of Toulouse said the release of the video days before the anniversary of the September 11 attacks aimed to put pressure on French authorities.
“Even for (AQIM) two years is very long. With the geopolitical situation in the region changing for AQIM - it is effectively at home in northern Mali - it’s looking to resolve this problem,” he said.
“It’s offering a chance to the French authorities and the companies. What’s sure is that AQIM wants to raise pressure.”
Regional and Western governments have compared the situation in Mali and the wider Sahel to Afghanistan, as a mix of local and foreign Islamists have hijacked a rebellion initially launched in January by secular Tuareg separatist rebels.
African leaders and Western governments including the United States and France, the former colonial power in the region, have been discussing the idea of a Western-backed African military intervention force going in to try to expel the rebels from the north and reunite divided Mali.
Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Sophie Hares