A leader of al-Qaida's North Africa branch said Thursday that future negotiations over the fate of five French hostages taken from an African mining town must be conducted with terror network leader Osama bin Laden himself.
In an audio excerpt released by the Al-Jazeera news channel on Thursday, Abu Mossab Abdelouadoud said that to ensure the safety of the hostages, French troops must also withdraw from Afghanistan.
"Any negotiations must be done with Osama bin Laden and according to his conditions," said a voice described as that of Abdelouadoud, one of the group's top leaders.
The recording comes just over two weeks after an audio message from bin Laden himself addressed to the French people in which he slammed the French for having troops in Afghanistan and a new law banning the face-covering veil.
Abdelouadoud repeated the call for the French to withdraw from Afghanistan and cease harming Muslims.
"Unless you stop interfering in our affairs and committing your injustices to Muslims, and if you want the safety for the French people, then you should to quickly pull your forces from Afghanistan," he said.
The channel did not reveal how it came by the message, but in the past it has received messages from affiliates of al-Qaida around the region.
In September five French citizens and two others were kidnapped from a uranium mining town in Niger by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The group, an offshoot of bin Laden's al-Qaida, has claimed responsibility for the abductions of five French citizens in Niger and is believed to have taken them to neighboring Mali.
The French hostages, as well as a Togolese and a Madagascar national were kidnapped on Sept. 16 while they were sleeping in their villas in the uranium mining town of Arlit.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb grew out of an Islamist insurgency movement in Algeria, merging with al-Qaida in 2006 and spreading through the Sahara and the arid Sahel region. It has increasingly been targeting French interests.
In July, the group said it executed a 78-year-old French aid worker it had taken hostage three months before. It said the killing was retaliation for the deaths of six al-Qaida members in a French-backed military operation against the group.
Also in July, the French military said it provided technical and logistical assistance to help Mauritanian forces thwart an attack by suspected al-Qaida members in northwest Africa. It said the operation left six extremists dead.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy later described that operation as a "turning point" and said France would provide training, equipment and intelligence to local troops working to fight militants in the Sahel.
A series of warnings has put France and other European countries on high alert in recent weeks, prompting the U.S. State Department to advise American citizens living or traveling in Europe to take more precautions. Speculation on the source of a potential terror threat in France has focused on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.