Al-Qaida's North Africa branch has claimed responsibility for kidnapping five French nationals near a uranium mine deep in the desert of the African nation of Niger, an audio message broadcast on Tuesday said.
In the recording broadcast by the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera, a voice claiming to represent al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb said the group would issue its demands to the French government shortly. "It was not a real surprise to learn that al-Qaida was at the origin" of the kidnapping, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told journalists at the United Nations in New York. "Now that it's certain, we will continue - the French, their allies, Israel - to put every effort into obtaining their freedom."
The claim came hours after Niger's government spokesman, Mahamane Laouali Dan Dah, said the hostages - also including a citizen of Togo and another from Madagascar - were still alive. He didn't say what that information was based on.
The audio message did not mention the two African hostages. All seven, who worked at a huge uranium mine in northern Niger run by French state-owned nuclear power giant Areva, were abducted on Thursday by armed men. France and Niger have said they suspected AQIM in the kidnappings in Niger, a former French colony in northwest Africa.
In the recording, the group claimed it "overcame security forces in the area and captured five French nuclear experts," and said it would "shortly" issue its demands to French authorities. "We also warn them from doing anything stupid," it added. France has deployed at least two military reconnaissance jets to Niger in the search for the hostages.
There was no way to authenticate the message, but in the past al-Qaida and its affiliates have claimed responsibility for operations through messages sent to Al-Jazeera.
Last week, the French Senate voted to ban burqa-style Islamic veils in France, a subject that has prompted warnings by AQIM. Counterterrorism officials in France say the ban is just one of several factors that have made France a target of the group. The excerpts broadcast by al-Jazeera made no mention of the ban. French authorities believe the hostage-takers, who operate in a remote area with porous borders, have brought the seven captives to a zone in northeastern Mali, a top French diplomatic official told The Associated Press.
The French interior minister was heading to Mali on Tuesday. Niger and Mali are both former French colonies, and French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux's office said his trip was part of the celebrations around Mali's 50-year anniversary of independence. A ministry spokeswoman said Hortefeux planned to discuss the hostage-taking with Mali's president.
Areva, which gets about one-third of its uranium in Niger, has acknowledged that security "breakdowns" existed before the abductions. On Tuesday, Areva confirmed it had received a letter from an official in Niger on Sept. 1 warning the company of intelligence about a plot to abduct foreigners and confiscate military materials in the area.
The letter also said defense forces had returned fire on an armed group's convoy in the area. "You understand that in these conditions the threat of AQIM must be taken seriously," said the letter, which was printed in full on the Web site of Le Monde newspaper.
Areva said in a statement that the letter was part of its regular contacts with Niger officials, and that the company's deputy for security had visited the region for a week starting Sept. 7 to meet with Niger officials, who offered "no particular information" about a threat.
A man who worked for Areva and his wife were among those kidnapped near the Niger mining town of Arlit. The other five work for a subcontractor called Satom.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or North Africa, is an affiliate of Osama bin Laden's group. It grew out of an Islamist insurgency movement in Algeria, merging with al-Qaida in 2006 and spreading through the region.
In July, AQIM said it executed a 78-year-old French aid worker it had taken hostage three months before, saying the killing was in retaliation for the deaths of six al-Qaida members in a French-backed military operation against the group. Amid increasing concerns about terrorism and trafficking in northwest Africa, four countries - Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger - opened a joint military headquarters deep in the desert in April. The goal has been to establish a collective response to threats from traffickers and the al-Qaida offshoot.