NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - A leader of al Qaeda's north African wing warned France on Saturday that any attempt to forcibly rescue six French citizens held hostage by the militant group could lead to their death.
French President Francois Hollande is pushing hard for military action against al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali to quash what he sees as a growing risk of them launching an attack on French soil, diplomatic sources said earlier this week.
Speaking for the first time since he was made head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) earlier this month, Yahya Abu Hammam said Hollande had been ratcheting up rhetoric against the group.
"He has promised his people that he will free the hostages without negotiations with the jihadists," Hammam said in an interview published by the Mauritanian news agency ANI.
"I want to send a message to the relatives of the French hostages who are with us: The decision of war that Hollande seemed to have taken means that he has signed for their execution and he must be responsible for his decisions."
Seven workers for French firm Areva were seized in northern Niger in 2010, and three have since been released. Two other French citizens were taken hostage in Mali in November.
Hammam said Hollande was pursuing the same policies as predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and this could have a dire outcome for the hostages, alluding to Michel Germaneau, executed by the group in July 2010 following a failed rescue operation.
Calls by Paris for speedy intervention have angered AQIM and its affiliates, some of whom warned on October 13 they would "open the doors of hell" for French citizens if Paris keeps up such pressure.
Hammam also warned France against pushing for military action to dislodge al Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups that have occupied the northern half of Mali since April.
Regional leaders and international organisations met in Mali's capital Bamako on Friday to seek a response to the occupation of the north of the country, but failed to resolve differences on how to tackle the growing security threat.
"What France and other Western countries are calling for - the importance of preserving the territorial integrity of Mali - is nothing but a form of political hypocrisy that these countries are known for," Hammam said.
Reporting by Asma Alsharif in Jeddah and Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Mark Heinrich