France accused of fostering market in hostages

Cameraman Stephane Taponier, left, and reporter Herve Ghesquiere -- two French journalists freed after 18 months' captivity at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan arrive at France Televisions headquarters in Paris. Despite official denials, France is accused of being too ready to pay ransoms for hostages -- and so encouraging kidnappers to abduct its citizens.

Kai Ryssdal: There are some questions being raised in London this week about a hostage rescue gone wrong. British and Nigerian commandos tried, and failed, to rescue a Brit and an Italian being held in Northern Nigeria on Thursday. The two men were killed by their captors as the raid went down.

France has seven nationals being held in Africa -- perhaps, critics say, because the French government tends to pay ransom too easily. John Laurenson reports from Paris.


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John Laurenson: French hostages returning to a heroes' welcome, alive and well after almost two years held captive in Afghanistan. How much did France pay the Taliban to get Hervé Ghesquière and Stephane Taponier back? The rumour was $25 million and the release of 17 Taliban prisoners.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal says:

Romain Nadal Our position is clear and constant. We don't pay any ransom for our hostages.

But the emergence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, one of whose ransom demand videotapes you're hearing, has stretched the credibility of the official French position to the limit. AQIM is an Algerian-led outfit operating across a vast swathe of the Sahara Desert.

Alain Chouet, former head of French counter-terrorism, says AQIM is mainly in it for the money.

Alain Chouet: Al Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb is made up of mainly 300-400 people, many of whom have criminal backgrounds. Taking hostages for ransom has been its stock and trade since the outset. We know the Germans and the Swiss have paid. The French deny it, but I don't see how they could have obtained the release of hostages without some sort of financial settlement.

Algeria says Western countries have paid AQIM a total of $70 million in ransom, transforming it from a bunch of bandits with shotguns to a well-armed and sophisticated terror operation. Worse still, paying ransom has created a sort of hostage market.

Renaud Girard is a veteran war reporter with Le Figaro newspaper.

Renaud Girard: As a reporter, I don't like to have on my forehead when I walk through the streets of Kabul or Kandahar written like $5 million.

He says paying ransom has made life for him and his compatriots more dangerous.

Girard: Recently we had a very good example. Gangsters from Somalia decided to go down to Kenya just to kidnap a French old lady who was living because they knew the French government is weak and would pay.

But does it have a choice? Jean-François Julliard is secretary-general of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, an NGO which campaigns for press freedom.

Jean-François Julliard: Governments should do their best to secure the release of hostages even if they have to give some money. They can't just let the hostages be killed by the kidnappers! They can't! They can't!

But other countries disagree.

Newscast: Edwin Dyer has been murdered by an Al Qaeda ...

Britain's refusal to negotiate with Dyer's kidnappers in 2009 perhaps explains why AQIM hasn't taken any British hostages since. But this doesn't alter the hard truth that, had the British government negotiated, Dyer might have been alive today.

Radio France reporter Christian Chesnot was held hostage in Iraq for the last four months of 2004 along with another French journalist. He was, he says, very glad to be French.

Christian Chesnot: When you know that your country will try to make the maximum of efforts, it's better than to be a British or an American that you have doubts about the will of your country to get you back.

But Renaud Girard says if he were taken hostage, he'd like his government to do something else.

Girard: I would like to see special forces intervening to try to kill the hostage takers. If I'm killed in the operation, tough luck. If I'm not killed, I will write a very exciting article.

In Paris, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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