RABAT — Al-Qaeda's north African branch threatened Thursday to kill five Westerners kidnapped in Mali in case of a military bid to free them, citing "information" of plans for a rescue operation.
"We send a warning to France, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden: if they authorise this operation it will mean the death of their nationals and amount to an attempt on their lives," Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said in a statement in Arabic.
"According to information we have received, the alliance of crusaders led by France, which supports certain regimes like those of Algeria and Mauritania, is preparing an imminent military operation to free their hostages."
The statement was emailed to AFP in Rabat and carried by the ANI news agency in Mauritania which has published several AQIM statements in the past. These have never been disclaimed.
"We would like to state that we are searching for a peaceful solution to this issue of the hostages," it added.
AQIM has claimed the kidnapping last November of two Frenchmen in the northern Malian town of Hombori, and another three Westerners a day later in Timbuktu, also in the north of the West African nation.
Thursday's warning came three weeks after Mali and Algeria agreed to boost military cooperation in the fight against AQIM.
Diplomatic and military sources in Bamako have spoken of a heightened Algerian troop presence in north Mali to provide support for Mali's fight "against insecurity and terrorism".
In its statement, AQIM did not specify whether the hostages were still in Mali.
Frenchmen Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic, who described themselves as a geologist and an engineer but were later identified as having had ties with mercenaries, were taken from their hotel in the middle of the night.
A day later, an armed gang snatched a Swede, a Dutchman and a man with dual British-South African nationality from a restaurant on Timbuktu's central square and killed a German with them who tried to resist.
AQIM has said the kidnappings were "a response to France's repeated attacks against Muslims in the countries of the Sahel."
Twelve Europeans, including six French nationals, are being held hostage in the Sahel strip of northwest African nations on the southern edge of the Sahara.
This zone is difficult to patrol and monitor and AQIM has carried out many attacks on troops, kidnappings of Westerners and trafficking of various kinds, including drugs.
The group was started in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists who sought the overthrow of the Algerian government to be replaced with Islamic rule.
AQIM was linked to Al-Qaeda in 2006.
On December 9, the organisation published two photos of hostages surrounded by armed men.
One photo was of the Lazarevic and Verdon, the other showed the three snatched from Timbuktu.
A previously unknown Al-Qaeda splinter group calling itself the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of two Spaniards and an Italian in October from a camp for Sahrawi refugees near Tindouf in southern Algeria.
Mali is grappling with the return of thousands of heavily armed fighters who served fallen Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.
In April 2010, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Mali created the Committee of the Operational Joint General Staff to better coordinate the fight against AQIM.
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