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French family's abductors may be seeking cash: analysts


Suspected Nigerian Islamists have demanded the release of prisoners in exchange for the freedom of a kidnapped French family, but analysts said Tuesday their true aim may be to collect a ransom payment.

The kidnappers who appeared with the hostages in a YouTube video on Monday claimed to be members of Boko Haram, an extremist group that has killed hundreds in northern Nigeria since 2009.

After the attack that targeted a family of seven, including four children, on holiday at a nature park in Cameroon near the Nigerian border, France quickly declared that Boko Haram was to blame.

While the video contained some demands previously listed by the Nigerian extremists, it marked a significant departure for Boko Haram, which had never before claimed the kidnapping of Western hostages.

Experts therefore cautioned against taking the video at face value, saying the call on Cameroon and Nigeria to release Islamist "brothers" and women linked to the group may have masked an unspoken financial motive.

"Boko Haram doesn't talk about money (publicly), but they need money," said Kunle Amuwo, a Nigeria analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"I believe that once negotiations start, they will (issue) a ransom" demand, he said.

However, France's defence minister on Tuesday ruled out talks with the abductors, saying "we do not negotiate on these terms, with these groups."

"What we do is use all possible means to ensure the release of hostages, be they these or others," Jean-Yves Le Drian said. "But we do not play this bidding game because that is terrorism."

Marc-Antoine de Montclos of the Paris-based Institute for Research and Development, said the Islamists have recently been suspected of raiding banks and kidnapping businessmen in their home base of northeastern Nigeria to fund their insurgency.

The abductions in Cameroon, he added, may have been an extension of that strategy, perhaps carried out by a local gang tied to the main branch of the radical sect.

"Boko Haram has been increasingly compelled to finance themselves locally through crime and we know very well that today French nationals sell better (than others) on the ransom market," Montclos said.

"That is why I think there is still a chance for financial negotiations."

Multiple analysts have suggested that Boko Haram's main faction, reportedly led by Abubakar Shekau, declared a global terrorist by the United States, may have not been directly involved in the initial attack.

The circumstances of the attack targeting a family that happened to be in the area on holiday indicates "it was a local initiative, not planned in advance," said Montclos.

The criminal gang behind the abductions may have had the intention of selling the hostages, perhaps to a more prominent group better placed to extract a significant ransom payment, experts said.

In the video, the hostages are flanked by two armed individuals whose faces are concealed.

A third kidnapper, seated in front of the family, reads a statement that says the abductions were carried out because of France's "war on Islam," apparently a reference to French military action against Islamist rebels in Mali.

"If you want us to release these French citizens, quickly release all our women you are detaining," he later says in Arabic, addressing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

Allegations that Nigeria's security forces have indiscriminately arrested the wives of alleged Boko Haram commanders have been circulating for months, said Amuwo of the ICG, suggesting the demand in the video was a direct reference to that charge.

It was not clear what prisoners in Cameroon the abductors may have been referring to.

For Montclos, the reference to women prisoners in Nigeria could have been a defensive move by a group facing criticism among its supporters for having abducted children aged five to 12.

"The message from Boko Haram could be: 'because the Nigerian army is not respecting the laws of war and kidnapping our women and our children, so are we,'" the French researcher said.