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Al-Qaeda Sets Deadline For French Hostage's Life

DUBAI (Reuters) -- Al-Qaeda's North African wing has threatened to execute a French hostage if four Al-Qaeda prisoners being held in Mali are not released within 20 days.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued its demand on an Islamist website often used by groups linked to Al-Qaeda and its supporters.

"The mujahedin have decided to inform the French and Malian governments of their only condition and demand for the release of the French hostage Pierre Camatte, which is the release of our four prisoners arrested by Mali several months ago," said the statement, which was issued on January 10.

At the end of the 20-day period, which started on January 10, "both governments will be fully responsible for the French hostage's life," the group added.

Camatte was kidnapped in Mali on November 25 last year and the group claimed his kidnapping as well as the kidnapping of three Spaniards.

In Mali, an official said the demand amounted to blackmail.

"We think it is blackmail, but still we reiterate our warning against any execution on our territory of nationals of allied nations," said the official who is close to the matter.

Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure has confirmed the presence of several AQIM suspects in his country's prisons.

Last May, AQIM executed British hostage Edwin Dyer, who was kidnapped on the border between Mali and Niger in January 2009.

"We call upon the French public and the family of the kidnapped to put pressure on the Sarkozy government and to prevent it from committing the stupidity which was committed by [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown against the British citizen," the group said.

In an online press briefing, France's Foreign Ministry said it did not comment on such statements.

"With regard to our compatriot's situation, we remain completely mobilized. As you know, in this type of situation we value complete discretion," the ministry said.

AQIM, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in Algeria and several other countries in the region.

It has extended its territory in recent years to include Mauritania, at the western end of the Sahara Desert. In December 2007 it killed four French tourists, prompting the cancellation of the Dakar Rally off-road automobile race in 2008.