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France rejects Bin Laden negotiation call

France's new foreign minister has rejected a reported message from al Qaida's North Africa branch saying that Paris should negotiate with Osama bin Laden over the fate of five French hostages seized from an African mining town.

"France cannot accept that its policies are dictated from abroad by anyone at all," Michele Alliot-Marie said.

"France is doing all in its power so that all hostages, wherever they are, are freed safe and sound," she said.

Ms Alliot-Marie, named foreign minister this week in a government reshuffle, made no other comment and did not refer directly to bin Laden or al Qaida.

The government is studying an audio excerpt by a man identified as the leader of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, broadcast by the Al-Jazeera news channel.

"Any negotiations must be done with Osama bin Laden and according to his conditions," said a voice described as that of Abu Mossab Abdelouadoud, who is also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel and under other names.

He urged French troops to pull out of Afghanistan to ensure the safety of the French hostages.

The Foreign Ministry is working to verify the message's authenticity, a ministry official said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's office did not immediately respond to the audio message.

The government had said previously it was willing to speak to the group's Algeria-based North African wing in order to find a solution to the crisis.

The message gave no details on how bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in mountains somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, could be contacted.

Bin Laden issued an audio message earlier this month criticising the French for having troops in Afghanistan and banning the face-covering veil.

The message broadcast on Thursday night repeated the call for the French to withdraw from Afghanistan and cease harming Muslims. France currently has around 3,850 troops stationed in Afghanistan as part of the Nato forces there.

Al-Jazeera did not reveal how it came by the audio tape, but in the past it has received messages from affiliates of al Qaida around the region.

The French hostages, as well as a Togolese and a Madagascar national, were kidnapped on September 16 while they were sleeping in the uranium mining town of Arlit.

Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the abductions and is believed to have taken them to neighbouring Mali.

The group grew out of an Islamist insurgency movement in Algeria, merging with al Qaida in 2006 and spreading through the Sahara and the arid Sahel region.

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