PARIS -- France paid $17 million in hostage ransoms that ultimately funded the al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants its troops are now fighting in Mali, the former American ambassador to Mali said.
French officials, whose soldiers are pushing north into the territory where the missing captives are believed to be held, denied paying any ransoms.
The Islamist rebels retreating northward are apparently taking Western hostages with them, including eight French. Analysts have long believed their rebellion was funded largely by ransoms paid in recent years, and the comments that aired Friday by Vicki Huddleston appeared to strengthen that view.
Huddleston, who served as ambassador to Mali and held positions in the State Department and Defense Department in the U.S. before retiring, said the French money allowed al-Qaida's North Africa branch to flourish in Mali.
"Although governments deny that they're paying ransoms, everyone is pretty much aware that money has passed hands indirectly through different accounts and it ends up in the treasury, let us say, of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and allows them to buy weapons and recruit," she said.
The former diplomat said the $17 million payment was intended to win freedom for hostages kidnapped in September 2010 from their guarded villas in the Niger town of Arlit, where they were working with French nuclear company Areva. Three of the captives, including a Frenchwoman, were ultimately freed; four of them -- including the husband of the women let go -- remain missing.
"France paid ransom for the release of these hostages," Huddleston said.
Claude Gueant, who was French President Nicolas Sarkozy's chief of staff at the time, on Friday denied that France had ever paid a ransom and said intermediaries had been negotiating to free the hostages. Philippe Lalliot, the current spokesman for the foreign ministry, dismissed Huddleston's comments as based on "rumor."
"On these statements, if you want to quote them very precisely -- statements that point to rumors -- I don't have a particular comment to make. On the situation of our hostages more generally, you know, that it is a concern for us at every moment," Lalliot said.
Even as France launched its military intervention in Mali on Jan. 11, the hostages remained in the French public eye. Rarely a day goes by without a story about their possible whereabouts on television or in print.
Diane Lazarevic, whose father Serge was abducted in Mali in 2011 and is among the missing captives, said each week of the fighting has brought new fears.
"All of us have imagined a scenario about how it could end, what they (the extremists) will demand, how it will happen. We have thought up a thousand different films in a loop in our heads and how it will unfold," she told The Associated Press this week.
"I'm still hopeful but with this military intervention and the progression of military force close to the kidnappers and the hostages, it is becoming very difficult and very nerve-racking."
Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College, said the French policy of paying for hostages has been clear for years, despite the government's denials.
"There is a political consensus that is being built subtly. Every single day you are reminded that you have nationals somewhere," Ranstorp said. For the French government and society, he said, "it is a financial transaction."
The primary drawback as far as France is concerned, he said, "is a security cost because wherever French people go they become prey."