DUBAI: Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said in an audio recording on Friday that the release of French hostages held in Niger depended on France's soldiers leaving Muslim lands.
"President Nicolas Sarkozy's refusal to remove his forces from Afghanistan is nothing but a green light for killing the French hostages," a speaker, who sounded like the al Qaeda leader, said in an audio message broadcast on the pan Arab television station Al Jazeera.
"But we will not do that at the time that he determines to try and finish off with the repercussions of his position, which will cost him dearly within France and outside of it," he said.
In response to the released tape, the French foreign ministry said that France is "determined" to keep troops in Afghanistan despite the threat from the al Qaeda chief.
"We are determined to pursue our action in favour of the Afghan people with our allies" in the Nato-led Isaf force that is fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told reporters.
This is the second tape that the al Qaeda's leader, believed to be hiding in the mountainous border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, has released blasting French policy and linking the French presence in Afghanistan to the kidnapping of its nationals in Niger.
Seven foreigners, including five French employees of Areva and Vinci, were kidnapped in Niger in September. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), the north African wing of the militant group claimed responsibility.
AQIM also claimed responsibility last week for two Frenchmen found dead after a failed rescue attempt in Niger early January, but did not say how the men died.
The September 16 kidnapping was an escalation in the hostilities between the militant group and France. AQIM killed 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneu last July after French commandos took part in a failed raid to free him.
France has eight hostages held across the world, five held by AQIM in Niger, two in Afghanistan held by the Taliban, and one in Somalia.
Unlike Britain and Spain, France has never been attacked by al Qaeda at home, despite being a Nato member that took part in the invasion of Afghanistan and still having troops there.
But analysts say that al Qaeda, and in particular AQIM may now pose a growing threat to targets in France, not just French interests in Africa's Sahel.
Analysts suspect al Qaeda senior leaders such as bin Laden would like AQIM to up the stakes in this way, calculating that an attack on French soil will have far greater political impact on the West than killing French citizens in remote areas of impoverished African countries.
Bin Laden's last audio tape to France, released on Al Jazeera in October, also attacked France's planned ban on full-face Islamic veils, a subject also latched onto in reported demands made by the AQIM kidnappers for its repeal.
In August 2009, al Qaeda number two Ayman al Zawahri criticized France over what he called its hatred for Muslims and issued a list of historical grudges he said Muslims should feel for France's colonial actions in the Middle East and Africa.