Al Qaeda blames France for Sahel hostage deadlock
* Four French hostages seized in Niger two years ago
* Al Qaeda says Paris ignored offer to negotiate
PARIS Dec 26 (Reuters) - A leader of al Qaeda's North African arm, AQIM, has accused France of failing to engage in negotiations to release French hostages the group is holding in the Sahel.
In a four-minute video message carried by regional news website Sahara Media, Abdel Hamid Abu Zeid said four hostages seized in Niger two years ago were alive and said Paris had not taken up AQIM's invitation to negotiate their release.
"About a year ago we alerted France to our willingness to negotiate and since then we have been waiting for a response," Abu Zeid said in a French transcript provided by Sahara Media, viewed as a reliable news portal with strong Islamist contacts.
The statement appeared to be in response to a Dec. 8 message from the brother of one of the hostages who said he did not understand why the situation appeared to be deadlocked.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said that Paris is working "discreetly" to try to secure the hostages' release.
AQIM, which operates across the vast Sahara desert and with its Islamist allies controls the northern two-thirds of Mali, is holding four Frenchmen seized in a Niger mining town in 2010 and two others kidnapped in northeast Mali in late 2011.
A seventh Frenchman was kidnapped by a separate Islamist rebel group, MUJWA, in southwest Mali in November.
AQIM threatened in September to start killing hostages if Paris mounted a military intervention in northern Mali.
Despite that risk, Paris has been a vocal supporter of plans for an international operation to try to wrest back the territory from the Islamists' control. Western leaders are concerned the area could become a platform for militant attacks.
The U.N. Security Council this month authorised a French-drafted resolution for the deployment of an African-led force to retrain Mali's defeated army and ultimately support such an operation.
The four AQIM hostages were working for French nuclear group Areva and Sogea-Satom, a subsidiary of construction group Vinci, in the uranium mining town of Arlit in Niger. (Reporting by Marine Pennetier; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Pravin Char)
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