Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has claimed the abduction of five French nationals in Niger and said that it will make demands to France regarding them.
"In announcing our claim for this operation, we inform the French government that the mujahedeen will later transmit their legitimate demands," a voice claiming to be AQIM spokesman Salah Abi Mohammed said in an audio message released on Tuesday.
"We also warn [the French government] against any sort of stupidity," he added, in reference to a possible military operation, as French military planes patrolled the desert on Tuesday in an effort to locate the seven.
The statement also said Algerian Abdelhamid Abou Zeid led the kidnap operation.
"Following the promise of our emir, Abou Moussab [Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel], a group of heroic mujahedeen last Wednesday, under the command of Sheikh Abou Zeid, succeeded in penetrating the French mining site at Arlit in Niger," Mohammed said.
No comment from Paris
France's Foreign Ministry said it could not immediately comment on the purported claim by AQIM, which has been active in the Sahara and the arid Sahel region and has been increasingly targeting French interests.
The claim came hours after Niger's government spokesman, Mahamane Laouali Dan Dah, said the hostages -- also including a citizen of Togo and another from Madagascar -- were still alive. He didn't say what that information was based on.
The audio message did not mention the two African hostages.
All seven, who worked at a huge uranium mine in northern Niger run by French state-owned nuclear power giant Areva, were abducted by armed men on Thursday.
France and Niger have said they suspected AQIM in the kidnappings in Niger, a former French colony in northwest Africa.