Hong Kong: The leader of al Qaeda`s offshoot in North Africa has warned France to pull its troops out of Afghanistan if it wants to see the safe return of five French hostages held by the extremist group.
Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), issued the threat in a speech broadcast by Al-Jazeera Arabic Television on Thursday, according to the US monitoring group SITE Intelligence.
He also said any talks over the hostages would be overseen personally by al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, who has said the abductions were a reprisal for a ban on the wearing of the Islamic veil in French public places.
According to a SITE translation, Droukdel said: "(If you) want safety for your citizens who are held captive by us, then you have to hasten and take your soldiers out of Afghanistan according to a specific timetable that you announce officially."
Seven hostages -- five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan -- were seized in a Niger uranium-mining town overnight on September 15-16.
Intelligence agents in the countries concerned believe they are being held in an area of the Sahara desert in neighbouring Mali.
Bin Laden, in a recording aired by Al-Jazeera in late October, also said that France`s security would be compromised if it does not pull its roughly 3,750 soldiers out of Afghanistan.
Droukdel, alias Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud, added in his message that "any form of negotiations on this issue in the future will be done with no one other than our Sheikh Osama bin Laden... and according to his terms".
France said for the first time on Wednesday that it was in touch with the AQIM kidnappers.
"Of course there are all kinds of contact" with the hostage-takers, new Defence Minister Alain Juppe told Europe 1 radio, without giving more details.
"All the (French) authorities, the defence ministry, the foreign ministry, everyone is being extremely vigilant to make the necessary contact," he said.
Asked if the hostages were believed to be safe, Juppe added: "Currently there is every reason to believe they are."