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US envoy says French ransoms for hostages ended up funding al-Qaida

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A Malian soldier walks in Gao, northern Mali, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. French troops began to withdraw from Timbuktu Thursday after securing the fabled city as they ramped up their mission in another northern Mali city, searching for Islamic extremists who may be mixing among the local population. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)The Associated Press

The former American ambassador to Mali says France paid $17 million in ransoms to free French hostages and that the money ended up in the hands of the same al-Qaida militants the country is fighting now.

In an interview that aired Friday on iTele, Vicki Huddleston said the money allowed al-Qaida's North Africa branch to flourish in Mali.

Claude Gueant, who was French President Nicolas Sarkozy's chief of staff at the time, on Friday denied that France had ever paid a ransom and said intermediaries had been negotiating to free the hostages.

France launched a military operation on Jan. 11 to help Mali's government wrest control from Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida. The retreating rebels are holding Western hostages, including eight who are French.