Imminent kidnap threat in Mali - France
Paris - France warned its citizens on Wednesday of an "imminent risk" of a kidnapping being carried out in northern Mali, an area roamed by gunmen from al-Qaeda's North African offshoot.
"We see, thanks to the help of our services, a certain number of threats, and notably threats in North Mali," Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said, referring to the country's Gao, Kidal and Tombouctou regions.
"Today, we alert tour operators and those who might want to travel to this region to the genuine risk of kidnapping that exists, which is a serious and I would almost say imminent risk," she said.
Alliot-Marie did not mention al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) by name, but the group has vowed to carry out attacks on France and has recently claimed responsibility for a number of kidnappings.
France has already warned citizens to avoid all but essential travel to the Sahel region of Niger, Mali and Mauritania, but many still risk heading there in January and February to enjoy Mauritania's famed cultural festivals.
'In cold blood'
Earlier this month, two 25-year-old Frenchmen kidnapped from a restaurant in the Niger capital Niamey were found dead in Mali after a failed attempt by French special forces to rescue them from an AQIM convoy.
Helicopter-borne commandos fired on the al-Qaeda group from the air, then fought a fierce gun battle with the gang in the desert, but afterwards Vincent Delory et Antoine De Leocour were found dead.
French magistrates have opened an investigation into the raid, which left nine people dead including the hostages, amid differing accounts over whether the militants or the commandos were responsible for the deaths.
Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for killing one of the hostages, but said the other died in the French assault. French authorities have vowed to investigate, but accused al-Qaeda of killing both "in cold blood".
Five more French citizens and two African colleagues were kidnapped last year from the Niger uranium mining town of Arlit and are thought to be being held in AQIM camps in the northern Mali.
Until recently, France has had a reputation for buying off kidnappers with ransoms, but President Nicolas Sarkozy has signalled a new "get tough" stance, and several recent hostage-takings have ended in bloodshed.
In April 2010, Sarkozy ordered French commandos to join an operation by Mauritanian forces in northern Mali against an AQIM base, in the hope of finding 78-year-old hostage aid worker Michel Germaneau.
He was never discovered, and al-Qaeda says he was killed in revenge for the raid. The French government says he may have died beforehand of an illness, but holds the group responsible for his death.
While operationally distinct from al-Qaeda's core commanders in Pakistan, AQIM draws prestige and inspiration from its links to Osama bin Laden's global Islamist movement.
In October, the Saudi-born militant leader warned France its citizens and interests will never be safe until it withdraws its troops from Afghanistan and ceases what he sees as its injustices against Muslims.