PARIS Al Qaeda's North African wing has claimed responsibility for kidnapping five foreigners in Mali last month, describing two of the hostages as French spies.
In a statement obtained by Reuters, accompanied by pictures of five men it said were snatched in Mali during two separate incidents at the end of November, the group demanded French President Nicolas Sarkozy withdraw his troops from Muslim countries to win the release of the French hostages.
"Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is pleased to claim the responsibility for the kidnapping on the night of November 24 in eastern Mali of two spies of the French secret service," the group said.
Doubts have surfaced in France over the identity of the two French nationals, initially described as geologists, who were kidnapped in the town of Hombori, close to the border with Burkina Faso.
French media reports said the two were known to French intelligence. One, of Hungarian extraction, took part during the 1990s in the recruitment of Yugoslav mercenaries to fight in then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second was arrested in September 2003 in the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros for his part in an attempted coup d'etat, according to the reports.
The French Foreign Ministry was not immediately available to authenticate the claim by AQIM, which said it had also kidnapped three other Westerners during a second raid on November 25.
A Dutchman, a Swede and a South African were abducted on that night in the historic trading town of Timbuktu and a German citizen was killed after resisting the attackers.
AQIM said it had carried out the kidnappings to avenge the arrest of some of its fighters in Mali who were subsequently extradited to Mauritania. They were also a reprisal for attacks by Mali against AQIM fighters "to satisfy the United States and France", which went against "all Islamic principles."
However, the group denied it had kidnapped two Spanish aid workers and an Italian from a Sahrawi refugee camp near Tindouf in western Algeria on October 23.
France has five other hostages still held overseas: a member of its security services in Somalia, and four people in North Africa's Sahel belt already held by AQIM since September 2010.
Paris said in March it would not negotiate on a demand by AQIM for 90 million euros for the release of the four. They were among an initial group of seven kidnapped employees of French firms Vinci and Areva, of whom three were later released.
The porous borders and rugged terrain of the Sahara-Sahel region have made it a safe haven for Islamists, rebels and smugglers and a no-go zone for many tourists.
Western nations led by France and the United States are trying to improve regional security cooperation but efforts have been undermined by a lack of resources, regional rivalries and a degree of local complicity.
(Additional reporting by Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)