US Ambassador: France Paid $17MILLION Ransom for Hostages Held by Al Qaeda

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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.

Turmoil: A French armoured vehicle overtakes a local truck as the convoy of French army vehicles head toward Gao on the road from Gossi

‘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.

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