The former American ambassador to Mali says France paid $17 million in ransoms to free French hostages and that the money ended up in the hands of the same al-Qaeda militants the country is fighting now.
In an interview that aired Friday on iTele, Vicki Huddleston said the money allowed al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch to flourish in Mali.
‘Two years ago, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped a number of French citizens at a uranium mine in Niger,’ she said.
‘To get them freed, France paid a 17-million-dollar ransom. Like all ransoms, it was paid indirectly, through the Malian government, which forwarded at least some of the funds to the Salafists [Islamists],’ said Ms Huddleston, who was U.S. ambassador to Mali from 2002 to 2005.
Claude Gueant, who was French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s chief of staff at the time, today denied that France had ever paid a ransom.
He said intermediaries had been negotiating to free the hostages.
The hostage’s Ms Huddleston is referring to were were taken from the Arlit uranium mine on September 16, 2010, according to France 24.
A further two were taken at Hombori in Mali in November 2011 and the seventh in November 2012 at Kayes, also in Mali.
All seven are believed to be held in north-east of Mali near the Algerian border.
France launched a military operation on January 11 to help Mali’s government wrest control from Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda.
The retreating rebels are holding Western hostages, including eight who are French.
Meanwhile this morning a suicide bomber has blew himself up in the northern Mali town of Gao – the country’s first such case.
The man was on a motorbike and blew himself up at a Malian government military checkpoint 100 km (60 miles) north of the northern city of Gao on Friday, injuring one soldier, a Mali military officer said.
It would be the first reported suicide bombing since a French-led intervention swept Islamist rebels from their desert strongholds of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.
‘A kamikaze on a motorbike just blew himself up at the Bourem checkpoint at 6:30 am (0630 GMT).
‘One lightly wounded soldier from Gao,’ the officer told Reuters by text message.
Meanwhile heavy gunfire erupted in the west of Mali’s capital Bamako today as government forces exchanged fire with mutinous paratroopers, military sources and witnesses said.
Government forces sealed off the area around the paratroopers’ base, as reinforcements arrived to quell the mutiny which was protesting disciplinary measures against some of the unit’s members.
Smoke was seen rising from the camp.
Since a military coup in March last year that plunged Mali into chaos and led to the occupation of the north by Tuareg and Islamist rebels, paratroopers loyal to former President Amadou Toumani Toure had been largely sidelined and some arrested.
“The Chief of Staff had taken a disciplinary measure against some of the paratroopers, and some of them were not happy with the decision so they woke up this morning and started shooting,” a Malian defense ministry official told Reuters.
The shooting in the southern capital Bamako occurred while French and Chadian troops hunted Islamist rebels hundreds of kilometres (miles) to the north in the second phase of a French-led military operation against al Qaeda-allied insurgents.