Al-Qaeda hostages scattered
Bamako - Seven hostages, including five French nationals, held by an al-Qaeda regional offshoot have been scattered and are no longer in Mali, a Malian source close to the case said on Sunday.
"The seven hostages have been scattered and are no longer on Malian territory. We are sure of that," said the source, who added that this was likely to make it more difficult to locate them.
"There are Malian and Niger people of goodwill trying hard to obtain satisfactory results. But it's not easy," the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added.
The seven hostages - five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan - were seized from Niger's uranium mining town of Arlit in September and later taken across the border into Mali.
Their abduction was claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose leader warned France to pull its troops out of Afghanistan if it wants to see the safe return of five French hostages.
Osama Bin Laden
Francoise Larribe, one of the five, is suffering from cancer and had undergone chaemotherapy shortly before the kidnapping, according to her family.
AQIM in July killed a 78-year-old French hostage who was kidnapped in Niger after six of its militants were killed in a joint French-Mauritanian rescue bid.
In a tape broadcast on Al-Jazeera television last Friday, al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden meanwhile said the release of French hostages depends on a pull out of French soldiers from Afghanistan and warned Paris of a "high price" for its policies.
Two French journalists were seized along with three Afghan colleagues in December 2009 east of Kabul. Several other French hostages were seized last year in Niger in a kidnapping claimed by AQIM.
On the tape bin Laden, addressing the French people, said: "The refusal of your president to withdraw from Afghanistan is the result of his obedience of America, and this refusal is a green light to kill your prisoners."
He warned that French President Nicolas Sarkozy's stance would "cost him and you a high price on different fronts, inside and outside France."