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Bin Laden Links French Hostages’ Release to Afghan Withdrawal

French hostages held in Niger won’t be released unless France withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said in an audio message broadcast today by al-Jazeera.

“President Nicolas Sarkozy’s refusal to remove his forces from Afghanistan is nothing but a green light for killing the French hostages,” bin Laden said in the tape, according to al-Jazeera’s website. “The release of your prisoners in the hands of our brothers is linked to the withdrawal of your soldiers from our country.”

Al-Jazeera carried similar bin Laden recording last October that also linked the Sept. 15 kidnapping of five French nationals in Niger to the military presence in Afghanistan.

“We are in the process of authenticating the recording,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said in a statement today. “France is engaged in Afghanistan at the side of its partners. We are determined to pursue our actions in support of the Afghan people with our allies.”

France has about 3,750 troops in Afghanistan, most of them involved in stabilizing valleys to the east of the Kabul.

A Sahara-based group linked to al Qaeda kidnapped the five French nationals and two African colleagues Sept. 15 near a mine they worked at in northern Niger.

The same group kidnapped two French men on Jan. 7 in the Nigerien capital of Niamey. They were found dead the next day after French special forces attacked a three-car convoy that had carried them across the border to Mali. Another French hostage was killed last July after a failed commando raid to rescue him.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group which claimed the kidnappings, declared allegiance to Bin Laden in 2007, though terrorist experts are divided about whether there are operational links between them and Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda remnants, believed to be hiding on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

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