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French-paid ransom money financed al-Qaida affiliate in North Africa

| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 6:20 p.m.

PARIS — A former U.S. ambassador to Mali has alleged that France paid a $17 million ransom to free hostages seized from a French mining site — cash she said ultimately funded the al-Qaida-linked Islamists whom its troops are fighting. French officials, whose soldiers are pushing north into the territory where the missing captives are believed to be held, denied paying any ransom.

Vicki Huddleston's allegations, which she said dated back two years, strengthened the view that the Mali rebellion was funded largely by ransoms paid in recent years. In February 2011, three of the hostages seized at a French uranium mine in Niger — including one Frenchwoman — were freed; four remain in the hands al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali.

The Islamist rebels retreating northward are apparently taking their Western hostages with them — among them the mine workers and three other French citizens seized elsewhere.

Huddleston, who served as ambassador to Mali and held positions in the State Department and Defense Department in the Washington before retiring, told France's iTele network that the French money allowed al-Qaida's North Africa branch to flourish in Mali.

“Although governments deny that they're paying ransoms, everyone is pretty much aware that money has passed hands indirectly through different accounts and it ends up in the treasury, let us say, of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and allows them to buy weapons and recruit,” she said in the comments that aired on Friday.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert in Sweden, said the French policy of paying for hostages is conducted “through several middlemen. It's almost a normal business transaction.” The primary drawback as far as France is concerned, he said, “is a security cost because wherever French people go they become prey.”

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