French ask volunteers in Mali, Niger to leave

The French government is asking citizens who are volunteering for charity organizations in Mali or Niger to leave immediately due to the growing threat of kidnappings by an offshoot of al-Qaida.

A copy of the letter signed by France's foreign minister and dated Feb. 7 was shown to The Associated Press this week.

The government's request indicates that the terror group's reach is growing. Although large sections of the Sahara desert including the portion stretching across northern Mali and Niger has been considered too dangerous for foreigners for some time, the capitals of the two countries have long been considered safe.

But on Jan. 7, two French citizens were taken at gunpoint from a restaurant in Niamey, the capital of Niger, marking the first time Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb had ventured into the urban heart of the country. Both men were killed during a subsequent rescue attempt.

"In light of the terror threat which is weighing on French nationals in the region and which is without precedent, I have decided to recall all the volunteers working in our embassies and for our companies in Mali and Niger," said Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie in the letter addressed to one French NGO. "For the same reason, I call on you to recall all of the volunteers occupying posts in Mali and Niger and to avoid sending any future volunteers."

French aid organizations say the request is too radical especially for places like southern Mali. They are asking the French government to reconsider.

"We are hoping to see the minister of foreign affairs next week," said Dante Monferrer, the head of France Volontaires, one of the organizations with volunteers in the region.

Dozens of foreigners have been grabbed over the past several years in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria by the al-Qaida-linked group, known by its acronym, AQIM. Five French hostages and two others grabbed last year in a northern uranium town are still in captivity.

In January, the U.S. Peace Corps announced it was suspending its operations in Niger and evacuated all 98 of its volunteers, the first time the agency halted its programs in Niger since it started working there in 1962.

French volunteers often play key roles in small organizations and projects in developing countries and are paid a salary. In the Malian capital, Bamako, one NGO which regularly sends out teams at night to assist street children is run by a volunteer. Organizers say that despite the January incident, the capitals of the two countries as well as the south remain safe.

"If this advice is not modified, it's certain things are going to be difficult," Monferrer said.