PARIS – A French citizen has been kidnapped in southwest Mali, far from the zone controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants where African countries are preparing a possible military intervention, officials said Wednesday.
The kidnapping brings to seven the number of French citizens being held in the west African nation that is effectively divided in two, with radical Islamists and native Touareg rebels in control of the north.
Northern Mali fell to Islamist extremists in April, after coup leaders toppled the government in Bamako, Mali's capital. France has been a driving force behind an initiative taking shape for a potential military intervention by Mali's army, perhaps bolstered by other African troops, to drive the Islamists from power.
France, a former colonial power in West Africa that still has a military presence in the region, fears that northern Mali could become a new base for a jihad, destabilizing Africa's Sahel region and ultimately threatening Europe.
"I confirm that there was a kidnapping of a French citizen in southwest Mali ... not in the part where there is the most danger," President Francois Hollande said at a news conference Wednesday, without elaborating.
There was some confusion over the exact location of the kidnapping Tuesday evening.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it took place in Nioro, a town just across the border from Mauritania, but a Malian police official said armed men kidnapped the Frenchman in the town of Diema, not far from Bamako.
The police official said the victim was captured during a stop at a cafe on the road that links Mali to neighboring Mauritania and to Senegal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The police official said the kidnap victim was traveling alone in a "personal bus" and his belongings were left inside the vehicle.
"This was the safest road in Mali, but unfortunately today no place in Mali is safe," the official said.
Fabius reiterated a warning to French not to travel to the region and said their country is doing its utmost, along with Bamako, to free the latest hostage.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an affiliate of the global terror network, is currently holding seven French hostages, likely in northern Mali.
Four of them were among seven people kidnapped in Niger in September 2010 while working with Areva and Vinci on uranium projects. Three were released.
Two others were kidnapped in November 2011 in Mali.
Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.