Five French hostages and two other foreigners kidnapped in Niger by an Al-Qaeda gang are alive and being held in the mountains of northern Mali, President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said, as a Malian source reported having seen them.
Gunmen seized the five French nationals, including a married couple along with a Togolese and a Madagascan in a raid on September 16 on a uranium mining town in the deserts of northern Niger.
"We are ready to talk to the kidnappers," a presidential aide said, referring to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the local wing of Osama bin Laden's global jihadist network.
The aide said that "we have every reason to think that the hostages are alive" and have been taken to the hilly desert zone of Timetrine in the north of Mali near the Algerian border.
A Malian source close to negotiations with the militants said yesterday he had seen the hostages.
"I have seen the hostages, they are all alive. They are even all able to stand up," said the source on condition of anonymity.
"Maximum discretion is needed. We are giving this information to reassure the families, but don't ask us any more," he said, without giving any further detail.
Most of the hostages work for France's state-owned nuclear giant Areva or its engineering sub-contractor Satom, and the firms have now withdrawn foreign workers from their Niger uranium mining operations.
France has warned its citizens to avoid travelling to the countries of west and north Africa that lie in the Sahel, a vast desert region where in recent years Al-Qaeda has become increasingly active.