PARIS (AP) - The former American ambassador to Mali says France paid $17 million in ransoms to free French hostages and that the money ended up in the hands of the same al-Qaida militants the country is fighting now.
In an interview that aired Friday on iTele, Vicki Huddleston said the money allowed al-Qaida's North Africa branch to flourish in Mali.
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.
France launched a military operation on Jan. 11 to help Mali's government wrest control from Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida. The retreating rebels are holding Western hostages, including eight who are French.