DUBAI/PARIS (Reuters) - Al Qaeda’s north African arm wants a repeal of a ban on the Muslim face veil in France, the release of militants and 7 million euros to free hostages who include five French, Al Arabiya TV said on Monday.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is holding seven foreigners in the Sahara desert after kidnapping them last month.
“The abductors have unrealistic demands which Mali and France could not accept ... including withdrawing a ban on the face veil in France and the release of some of the group’s elements detained in France, Mauritania and other countries,” the television quoted unnamed sources as saying.
The sources did not specify which militants the hostage-takers wanted released.
France’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the report as one of several “rumors” since the kidnappings in mid-September.
The government has not received any demands from AQIM since the seven were taken, but has said it would consider negotiating with the hostage-takers for their release.
Initial contacts with AQIM through local chiefs in Mali were “not encouraging” due to the nature of the demands, the sources told the Dubai-based television station.
France is the first country in Europe to introduce a ban on the veil after the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest constitutional authority, approved it last week.
The group is also demanding a million euros for the release of each hostage. One is from Togo and one from Madagascar.
The six men and one Frenchwoman, employees of French firms Areva and Vinci, were kidnapped in Niger before being taken to Mali.
An Areva official in Niger, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said one of the hostages was suffering complications from cancer.
“Francoise Larribe had undergone chemotherapy in France. Based on what I gathered from her husband, prior to the kidnapping, she developed an infection and doctors were working to prevent the cancer from metastasizing,” the source said.
AQIM killed 78-year-old French hostage Michel Germaneau in July after French commandos took part in a failed raid to free him. AQIM vowed to avenge the raid, alleging France had launched the attack while negotiations were under way.
At the time, Le Monde newspaper reported that the group’s demands — including for the freeing of Rachid Ramda, jailed for his involvement in three Paris bombings — made a deal unlikely.
Mali released four Islamist prisoners earlier this year in an apparent swap for French hostage Pierre Camatte, freed by AQIM in February. Mali was criticized for the move by regional neighbors Algeria, Mauritania and Niger.
AQIM, which grew out of the Salafist movement in Algeria and has since shifted south into the vast and lawless Sahel region, killed British captive Edwin Dyer last year after London refused to give in to its demands.
Additional reporting and writing by John Irish; additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey; editing by Andrew Roche