PARIS The North African arm of al Qaeda threatened to kill French hostages kidnapped in Niger if Paris tried to mount a military intervention in northern Mali, a regional news website reported on Wednesday.
Sahara Media quoted a statement from al Qaeda's north African arm AQIM as saying France had "imprudently" worsened the crisis in Mali by seeking armed intervention in the north of the country.
AQIM, which operates across West and North Africa's vast Sahara desert, now controls with its Islamist allies the northern two-thirds of Mali, which borders Niger.
It holds four French citizens kidnapped two years ago from a mining town in Niger and two other French hostages.
It said French intervention in Mali would be "mad and provoke not only the death of the hostages, but that France would be dragged into the Azawad region (the northern part of Mali) which would bring France more tragedies and catastrophes".
African leaders and Western governments including the United States and France, the former colonial power in the region, have discussed the idea of a Western-backed African military intervention force to try to expel the rebels from the north and reunite divided Mali.
The four male hostages were among seven people working for French nuclear group Areva and Sogea-Satom, a subsidiary of construction group Vinci, who were kidnapped in September 2010 in the town of Arlit in Niger's northern uranium mining zone.
The wife of one of the hostages, a Togolese and a Malagasy man were freed the February following their kidnap.
The kidnappers have demanded a 90 million-euro ($118 million) ransom for the return of the hostages, dismissed by the previous French government which said it would not negotiate with AQIM.
The statement said AQIM was ready to negotiate but that Paris had to make the "first step".
France's foreign ministry said it would not comment on the report because it had not yet been authenticated.
The Sahara Media website which earlier this month carried a video of the four hostages, is widely regarded as one of the more reliable news portals in the region with a strong network of contacts with Islamists.
Paris has promised to provide logistical support and share intelligence as part of a future intervention in Mali, but has ruled out directly sending troops to the country partly because AQIM is holding French hostages.
Regional and Western governments have compared the situation in Mali and the wider Sahel to Afghanistan, as a mix of local and foreign Islamists have hijacked a rebellion initially launched in January by secular Tuareg separatist rebels. ($1 = 0.7658 euros)
(Reporting by John Irish, Writing by Leigh Thomas)