BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malian security forces have arrested four suspects accused of kidnapping two Frenchmen last month on behalf of al Qaeda’s North African wing, the West African state said on Monday.
Mali is under growing international pressure to step up the fight against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is plying a lucrative trade in the ransom of Westerners kidnapped in the Sahel region.
“We confirm the arrest of four kidnappers,” a spokesman for the Malian presidency said.
“They are subcontractors for AQIM, to whom they handed over the hostages,” the spokeman said, adding that pictures of the kidnappers would be broadcast on television later on Monday.
The two Frenchmen, described by Malian officials as an engineer and a technician who work for a local cement firm, were kidnapped on night of November 23 in the town of Hombori, about 200 km (125 miles) west of the northern city of Gao.
AQIM last week claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the two Frenchmen — whom it described as French spies — and three other Westerners in a separate incident in the north of Mali a few days later.
The spokesman said the suspects are all Malian nationals from the north of the country. Mali said earlier this month it believed the hostages were alive and it was trying to free them.
Governments in the Sahel region including Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and Niger are struggling to contain the growing threat by Islamist militants in the region, which has long been a safe haven for rebels and smugglers.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Sunday security concerns for the Sahel had risen since the Libyan war, there were concerns Mali was not doing enough in regional efforts.
“We are extremely worried, because from Libya there was penetration by a number of armed groups that entered the region, so all our work is to convince the countries to coordinate their action against AQIM,” Juppe told French media at the weekend.
“Mauritania and Niger are committed, Algeria is taking part, but we have to convince Mali to be completely committed.”