U.S. urges ‘zero-tolerance’ on ransom demands

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The United States on Friday urged all nations to refuse to pay for the release of hostages, amid reports that Al-Qaeda linked militants in Mali have amassed millions of dollars in ransoms.

In an interview with French television aired Friday, former U.S. ambassador to Mali, Vicki Huddleston, said as much as $89 million could have been paid out in ransom payments from 2004-11.

Huddleston, the U.S. ambassador to Mali from 2002-05, said Germany, other European countries except Britain, and Canada had paid ransoms, helping to finance the Islamist groups which last year seized control of northern Mali.

France, which is now battling to help the Malian government wrest back control of the north, had paid $17 million (12.7 million euros) to free French hostages seized from a uranium mine in Niger in 2010, she alleged.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland could not confirm the figures, but said the United States was concerned that Al-Qaeda’s North African franchise and other groups “do use hostage taking as their main means of financial support.”

“We continue to encourage all of our partners and allies in the international community to absolutely refuse to cooperate with hostage taking and to have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of effort,” Nuland said.

“Otherwise we’re just feeding into the coffers of the terrorists.”

Turning to the conflict in Mali, Nuland also highlighted that a suicide bombing on Friday, the country’s first, illustrated “the continuing fragility of the security situation” there.

The attack at an army checkpoint in Gao, in which one soldier was wounded, and a gunfight between rival soldiers in the capital, Bamako, showed that “the Malian army itself is going to need continued and strong support,” Nuland said.

The first group of 70 EU military instructors, deployed to train Mali’s deeply divided and underfunded army to take on Islamist rebels, arrived Friday in the capital, a French officer said.

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