London, Asharq Al-Awsat—According to former US ambassador to Mali, Vicki Huddleston, France has channeled millions of dollars in ransom payments to the same Al-Qaeda linked militants it is fighting today in Mali.
In an interview with French news channel iTélé on Thursday, Huddleston said, “Two years ago, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped a number of French citizens at a uranium mine in Niger. To get them freed, France paid a $17 million ransom.”
However the French government was double-crossed and these French hostages are still being held by Al-Qaeda militants, probably somewhere in northern Mali.
Huddleston, who served as US ambassador to Mali between 2002 and 2005, also confirmed that a number of other western countries had paid ransoms that ultimately served to finance the armed Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali last year. She confirmed that Britain and Canada were not among these countries.
She emphasized that no ransoms were paid directly to the Islamists, but rather indirectly through the Malian government, which “forwarded at least some of the funds to the Salafists.”
In total, seven French nationals are being held by Islamists in Mali. Huddleston revealed that the four hostages in question were kidnapped from the Arlit uranium mine on September 16, 2010. They are Thierry Dol, Daniel Larribe, Pierre Legrand and Marc Féret. Another two French nationals were taken at Hombori in Mali on November 2011, while a seventh hostage was kidnapped in November 2012 at Kayes, also in Mali.
All seven are believed to be held somewhere in the Ifoghas mountain range in the far north-east of Mali, close to the Algerian border.
Regarding the total amount of money that has been paid in ransoms to AQIM, Huddleston said that this stood at approximately $89 million. She said, “Various European governments paid ransoms through the Malian government to obtain the release of their citizens and that allowed AQIM to grow strong, buy weapons, and recruit.”
Asharq Al-Awsat contacted the French embassy in London for comment but had received no reply at the time this article went to press.