BAMAKO/PARIS (Reuters) - France will not be pressurized by the kidnapping of a French citizen in southwest Mali, President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday, stressing the hostage had not been seized in the Islamist-controlled north.
The kidnapping may increase tensions as African nations draw up plans to intervene in Mali where almost two-thirds of the country fell under Islamist hands after a coup earlier this year.
While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, Hollande appeared to single out al Qaeda’s north African arm, which already holds six French nationals in the Sahara region.
“We will do everything to find our citizens,” Hollande told a joint news conference with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in Paris.
“For the terrorists, capturing a hostage is a way to put pressure on us, but it won’t weigh on us. I have already told the hostage takers that it was time to free them (hostages).”
The French man crossed into Mali from Mauritania by car on Tuesday morning and was taken by armed men near the Malian town of Kayes, close to the border of both Mauritania and Senegal, according to Mauritanian state press agency AMI.
The north of Mali is controlled by Islamist groups that collect millions of dollars from smuggling and kidnap ransoms, but they typically operate much further to the north in a vast and lawless desert abandoned by government forces since a Tuareg rebellion and March coup d’etat.
European leaders are growing increasingly anxious that Mali could turn into a platform for militant attacks, including in Europe. Paris is the most vocal supporter of a planned international intervention aimed at wresting the territory from the Islamists’ control.
African leaders are putting the finishing touches to the plan to retake Mali’s north, although the intervention will take at least six months to prepare, plans seen by Reuters show.
When asked if the kidnapping of the man could be a game changer for France, which has ruled out intervening directly in the operation, Hollande said Paris would work within the framework of the United Nations.
“We will support (this) logistics and training within the European framework too if Africans decide to intervene and today that is their intention.”
A French diplomatic source told Reuters in October that any intervention in northern Mali could be accelerated if French interests were hit - including the death of any of its existing hostages, a terrorist attack in France, new hostages being taken or Islamists pushing on to Bamako.
“All this would be an accelerator,” the source said.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on November 11 that “if we don’t intervene, there could be other hostage takings.”
The Kayes region of western Mali is home to some of the country’s biggest gold mines, including Sadiola and Yatela, operated by Canadian gold producer IAMGold and its joint-venture partner AngloGold Ashanti.
Mali is Africa’s second-largest gold miner and operations have been largely untouched by turmoil in the country so far.
Additional reporting by Laurent prieur in Nouakchatt, Alexandria Sage in Paris, Adama Diarra and Richard Valdmanis in Dakar; Writing by Richard Valdmanis and John Irish; Editing by Ron Askew