OUAGADOUGOU Two Frenchmen held hostage by al Qaeda in northern Mali since November appeared in a video on Saturday appealing to French President Nicolas Sarkozy to secure their release.
The video, received by authorities in Burkina Faso and seen by a Reuters reporter, shows Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic. Both were seized in northern Mali on November 24 in a kidnapping claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Looking thin, Verdon, who will be 54 this month, appears with Lazarevic, 48, in a tent and says they are "in the desert in extremely difficult conditions". Both wear desert robes and turbans.
Verdon, who gives the date of the recording as February 22, 2012, says he has lost a lot of weight and is suffering from health problems.
"That's why I'm appealing to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, I'm asking him to do all that is possible to try to resolve this situation," Verdon says. At one point he appears to ask the person filming, "Is that good?".
He goes on to say that his AQIM captors have told them that "the doors are not closed to discussion and negotiation".
The video was made available by Burkina security sources who said they had passed it to the French government though Paris has so far declined to comment on the recording.
Lazarevic makes a similar appeal to Sarkozy and refers to AQIM "prisoners in Mali and Mauritania", suggesting their captors have been proposing an exchange.
"AQIM is open to negotiation," Lazarevic says.
In the video, both men are clearly bothered by flies.
Four other French hostages are also being held by AQIM after being seized in northern Niger, in the same vast and rugged area of the southern part of the Sahara desert.
Last month, a coup in former French colony Mali emboldened Tuareg rebels to seize the northern half of the country and declare an independent state there. Al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters are among the rebels, and analysts fear the desert zone could become an even larger haven for al Qaeda agents and a destabilizing "rogue state" in West Africa.
Sarkozy said on Friday everything had to be done to prevent a "terrorist or Islamic state" emerging there.
(Reporting by Mathieu Bonkoungou; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Andrew Osborn)