PARIS – PARIS (AP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed on Wednesday to mobilize his government to free five French people abducted last week by an al-Qaida affiliate in Niger, calling it a "very serious and worrying affair," according to a government spokesman.
Al-Qaida's North African branch has claimed responsibility for last Thursday's abductions, in which armed men snatched the five, plus two of their African colleagues, and the French Foreign Ministry confirmed the authenticity of the claim.
The French military has flown reconnaissance jets over the Sahara to search for the hostages. France has a military presence in some of its former colonies in West Africa.
The special anti-terrorism section of the prosecutors office opened a preliminary investigation Wednesday into the kidnappings.
French media reported Wednesday that France has requested U.S. help in winning the hostages' release. The U.S. Embassy in Paris would not comment on the reports.
A ranking Defense Ministry official said only that France has called on its "traditional allies" for limited assistance, notably satellite observation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with government regulations.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said, "We are cooperating with all the countries involved the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region, (including) with our main allies and partners."
Six of the seven hostages worked at a huge uranium mine in northern Niger run by French state-owned nuclear power giant Areva. The seventh was married to an Areva employee.
The ministry has "not received any proof of life, but we have good reason to think that the hostages are alive," Nadal said in an online briefing on Wednesday.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility in a recording broadcast Tuesday by the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera. On the recording, a member of the group said it would issue its demands to the French government shortly. The group operates throughout a broad swath of desert countries in northwest Africa and has increasingly targeted French interests there.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said the hostages have been spirited from Niger to neighboring Mali. Hortefeux was in Mali on Wednesday for the country's 50th anniversary celebrations, and was scheduled to discuss the kidnappings with Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure.
Sarkozy addressed the issue at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday and pledged to meet next week with the families of those kidnapped. Sarkozy promised to mobilize the government to win the liberation of the hostages, government spokesman Luc Chatel told journalists following the Cabinet meeting.
Chatel said the French government had warned Areva of the increased danger of kidnappings in the area.
"From July, the French government alerted the companies and personnel in question about the dangers in terms of security in the area," he said. "Signals had been sent, alerts were sent directly to Areva and its top staff and employees."
Areva, which gets about one-third of its uranium in Niger, has acknowledged that security "breakdowns" existed before the abductions. On Tuesday, Areva confirmed it had received a letter from an official in Niger on Sept. 1 warning the company of intelligence about a plot to abduct foreigners and confiscate military materials in the area.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or North Africa, grew out of an Islamist insurgency movement in Algeria that merged with al-Qaida in 2006 and spread through the region.
In July, the group said it had executed a 78-year-old French aid worker it had taken hostage three months before, saying the killing was in retaliation for the deaths of six al-Qaida members in a French-backed military operation against the group.
Associated Press writer Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali, and Laurent Rebours and Pierre-Antoine Souchard in Paris contributed to this report.