France lashes out at Al Qaeda message on hostages

France's new foreign minister on Friday rejected a reported demand from Al Qaeda's North Africa branch for Paris to negotiate with Osama bin Laden over the fate of five French hostages seized in Niger.

"France cannot accept that its policies are dictated from abroad by anyone," Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in a statement. "France is doing all in its power so that all hostages, wherever they are, are freed safe and sound."

Alliot-Marie, just named to the post in a government reshuffle, made no other comment and did not refer directly to bin Laden or Al Qaeda.

France is studying an audio excerpt broadcast Thursday night by the Al-Jazeera news channel by a man identified as the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

"Any negotiations must be done with Osama bin Laden and according to his conditions," said a voice described as that of Abu Mossab Abdelouadoud, who is also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel and under other names. He urged French troops to pull out of Afghanistan to ensure the safety of the French hostages.

The Foreign Ministry is working to verify the message's authenticity, spokesman Bernard Valero said Friday.

He would not provide any new information on the condition of the hostages seized in Niger two months ago but said the government believes they are still alive.

The five French hostages, as well as two people from Togo and Madagascar, were kidnapped Sept. 16 as they slept in the Niger uranium mining town of Arlit. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the abductions and is believed to have taken them to neighboring Mali.

The French government had said previously it was willing to speak to Al Qaeda's Algeria-based North African wing to find a solution to the hostage crisis.

The audio message gave no details on how bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, could be contacted.

Bin Laden issued an audio message earlier this month criticizing the French for having troops in Afghanistan and banning the face-covering veil.

The message broadcast Thursday repeated the call for the French to withdraw from Afghanistan and cease harming Muslims. France currently has around 3,850 troops stationed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO forces there.

Al-Jazeera did not reveal how it came by the latest audio tape.


Crystal Becerril in Paris contributed to this report.