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Al Qaeda targets French citizens abroad as no-go zones grow

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    French soldiers take position outside Bourem,, northern Mali, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. Mali’s military detained eight Arab men last week in Timbuktu, raising fears of further reprisals against the region’s Arab minority whose members are accused of having supported the al-Qaida-linked groups which overran northern Mali last year. (AP Photo /Pascal Guyot, Pool) (The Associated Press)

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    French soldiers talk to Malian soldiers outside Bourem, northern Mali, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. Mali’s military detained eight Arab men last week in Timbuktu, raising fears of further reprisals against the region’s Arab minority whose members are accused of having supported the al-Qaida-linked groups which overran northern Mali last year. (AP Photo /Pascal Guyot, Pool) (The Associated Press)

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    A French army sniper stands next to an armored vehicle outside Bourem, northern Mali, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. Mali’s military detained eight Arab men last week in Timbuktu, raising fears of further reprisals against the region’s Arab minority whose members are accused of having supported the al-Qaida-linked groups which overran northern Mali last year. (AP Photo /Pascal Guyot, Pool) (The Associated Press)

The red warning zones expand along with the numbers of French men, women and now children who have become the largest group of nationals held hostage by Al Qaeda and its loose affiliates.

With the kidnapping of a family of seven — including four children — outside a national park in northern Cameroon this week, France added two new countries to the growing list of former colonies that are considered unsafe for travel. It counts 15 citizens being held in the western half of Africa either by Al Qaeda's North Africa branch or the terror group's allies. The U.S., with nine hostages held by Al Qaeda-linked groups worldwide, is now a distant second, according to IntelCenter. No other country comes close.

Some of the reasons why:

— France's intervention in Mali to drive out Al Qaeda linked extremists: Even before the French ground offensive in January, Islamic extremists threatened in October to "open the doors of hell" for French citizens. "He will not be able to count the bodies of French expatriates across West Africa and elsewhere," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for Islamist group MUJWA, after France pushed the U.N. resolution to drive out the Al Qaeda-linked militants.

— Uranium, gas, oil: France's corporate influence in its former colonies remains strong. Among kidnap victims are employees of French nuclear company Areva who were taken from a uranium mine in Niger; GDF, the French gas conglomerate, confirmed that it was an employee and his family who were taken captive in Cameroon. And Total, the French oil company, has been among the major player in Nigerian extraction for decades.

— Ransoms: Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S. ambassador to Mali, recently alleged that France paid a $17 million ransom to free hostages seized from the Areva site — cash she said ultimately funded the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants its troops are now fighting. French officials deny paying any ransoms, but analysts and other U.S. officials say a policy of payments by middlemen have made French hostages extremely lucrative.

The breakdown of hostages, according to IntelCenter:

— France: 15

— United States: 9

— South Africa: 4

— Canada: 3

— Countries with two hostages include: Finland, Lebanon, Netherlands, Spain, Syria, Britain.

— Countries with one hostage include: Austria, Australia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, Germany (dual U.S. citizen).