Ex-US ambassador: France paid ransoms to al Qaeda offshoot

A former U.S. ambassador on Friday accused France of paying millions of dollars to al Qaeda-linked terrorists in northern Africa. 

France paid $17 million in 2010 for the release of four hostages captured at a uranium mine in Niger by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Vicki Huddleston told France's iTele. She said European governments have paid about $89 million to Islamists in the Sahel region between 2004 and 2010.

“The ransom — like all other ransoms paid — were paid indirectly in the hands of the Malian government and then were turned over to — at least part of it — to the Salafists,” said Huddleston, who was ambassador to nearby Mali from 2002 to 2005. “Although governments deny that they're paying ransom, 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 Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and allows them to buy weapons and recruit.”

The allegations have caused an uproar in France. Claude Guéant, who was interior minister under President Nicholas Sarkozy in 2010, flatly denied the allegations.

“It's not because a former U.S. ambassador says what she just said that it's the truth,” he told iTele. “I maintain that France – the French state – has never paid hostage ransoms. France has never paid anything; that's all I can say.”

Despite the protests, companies linked to the French state – particularly nuclear energy giant Areva – have long been suspected of paying Islamists when their workers are kidnapped. Seven French hostages remain in the Sahel region. 

The current president, François Hollande, told reporters he had “no information” on the previous government's dealings. 

"And therefore I have no comment on the manner in which hostages may have been freed,” he said. “What I know is that today ... there is no financial question. But we will do all we can to free our fellow citizens.”

In the interview, Huddleston also defended her decision to veto a Pentagon proposal to target Algerian terror leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar in 2003, which was first reported by The Washington Post on Monday. Belmokhtar is believed to be the leader of the al Qaeda offshoot that took dozens of foreigners hostage at a natural gas facility in the Algerian desert last month, causing the deaths of three Americans.

“That was correct that I would say absolutely no, because he was just a little smuggler — he wasn't an imminent threat to the United States government, certainly not to the French,” she said.

Huddleston went on to say she was “truly delighted” by the U.S.-backed French military intervention in Mali, which aims to route Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country. 

“The French timely intervention … saved Mali from becoming a terrorist a religious extremist center in Africa,” she said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland would not confirm Huddleston's allegations.

"What I would broadly say is that Ambassador Huddleston's concern reflects a concern that we share, that AQIM and other groups like this do use hostage-taking as their main means of financial support," Nuland said at her press briefing. "And we continue to encourage all of our partners and allies in the international community to absolutely refuse to cooperate with — with hostage-taking and to have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of effort. Because, otherwise, we're just feeding into the coffers of the terrorists."

"We believe that AQIM is continuing to try to exact ransoms. We believe that they are too often successful in getting ransoms," Nuland said. "I'm not going to speak to any particular country."