France slams Bin Laden, plays down hostage threat

French Foreign Minister denounced Islamist militant leader Osama bin Laden`s threat of new attacks.

Paris: France denounced on Thursday new threats
of attacks from Islamist militant leader Osama bin Laden, and
played down his ties to the kidnappers of five French
nationals held hostage in the Sahara.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France was in a
state of "extreme vigilance" but that the grim warning had
come as no surprise, and he played down Bin Laden`s ability to
influence events from his current hideout.

Kouchner was reacting after the author of a taped
message purportedly from the al Qaeda kingpin said that five
French hostages kidnapped in the Sahara had been taken as a
warning and threatened more attacks on French interests.

"These unacceptable threats are not new," Kouchner
told reporters, playing down Bin Laden`s influence over the
North African al Qaeda affiliate that carried out September`s
kidnap of the French nationals in Niger.

"Mr Bin Laden has taken this opportunity. It was
opportunism. It`s not him, it`s not Mr Bin Laden who is
holding the hostages, it`s much more complicated than that,"
Kouchner said, on the sidelines of a diplomatic meeting in

"We expected this threat and I don`t think Bin Laden
has the same means at his disposal as he once had," he said,
minimising the threat posed by the man behind the September 11 attacks, now thought to be based in Pakistan.

Kouchner was speaking before authorities had confirmed
the threat was genuine, but his spokesman Bernard Valero later briefed reporters that its authenticity "can be considered as confirmed in light of initial checks."

Gunmen kidnapped five French nationals and two African
colleagues on September 15 from their homes in the uranium
mining town of Arlit in Niger. They are now thought to be
being held hostage in neighbouring Mali.

Kouchner denied reports France had developed
"contacts" with the kidnappers.

The group that claimed responsibility for the kidnap,
"al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM), has pledged
allegiance to Bin Laden`s global network after evolving from
groups of Islamist rebels roving the Sahara.

Bin Laden`s message connected the kidnap to France`s
deployment of troops to Afghanistan and ban on the Islamic
full face veil.

Defence Minister Herve Morin told RTL radio France
could begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan as early as
next year, but insisted this was in no way connected to any
the threat posed al Qaeda.

"In any case, that`s the calendar set by Barack Obama,
that in 2011 the first American troops could quit
Afghanistan," he said. "And that`s what a certain number of
European countries have started to say."