|There are fears over the fate of the hostages, which include five French nationals and two Africans [AFP/SITE]
France has rejected a reported demand from al-Qaeda's North Africa wing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, saying it would not allow outsiders to dictate its foreign policy.
"France will not accept that its policy is dictated to from outside by anybody," Michele Alliot-Marie, the French foreign minister, said on Friday.
Her comments come a day after Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), made the demand in return for the safety of French nationals kidnapped in Niger in a recording broadcast by Al Jazeera.
In the message Abdel Wadoud also said that any negotiations over the release of the hostages should be carried out directly with al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden.
"The summary of the message is very clear," he said.
"You will not find security anywhere until we also have security and safety in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Maghreb and so on."
It is the first time the group has referred to bin Laden in its messages.
"Withdrawing French troops from Afghanistan is a kind of classic, traditional demand for all kinds of attacks," Herve Morin, France's former defence minister, said.
"What's new is the reference to bin Laden. Generally, and particularly with AQIM, it's more of a franchise."
Mathieu Guidere, a terrorism expert, told the Reuters news agency that Droukdel's message was timed to coincide with a Nato summit starting on Friday, where member countries are discussing commitments in Afghanistan.
"This message has come out in time for the Nato summit,"Guidere said. "This is political opportunism."
A French foreign ministry spokesman said the government was working to authenticate the message and secure the release of the hostages, which include five French nationals, one Madagascan and a Togo national.
The group, who were employees of French companies Areva and Vinci were kidnapped in Niger on September 16.
Fears were raised over their fate on Tuesday when Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, said he was "especially worried" about them.
Bin Laden said in an audio tape aired last month that the kidnapping was prompted by France's unjust treatment of Muslims and also demanded France withdraw from Afghanistan.
AQIM also offered in October to release the hostages in exchange for a repeal of the ban on the face veil in France, the release of fighters and $9.88m, according to a report by Al Arabiya television.
In July, French commandos took part in a failed operation to rescue another Frenchman kidnapped in Niger earlier in the year, Michel Germaneau, a move AQIM described as an act of war.
Germaneau was killed after the attempt to free him.
The French government, embarrassed by the affair, has offered few details about the status of the five other hostages or of any negotiations to free them.