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Video claims Nigeria sect holds 7 French hostages

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LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A video posted online Monday apparently shows seven French hostages kidnapped from northern Cameroon, with a masked militant claiming the radical Islamic group Boko Haram from neighboring Nigeria holds them.

The video, posted to YouTube and mentioned on a jihadist website, shows one of two French men reading a statement, with a woman in between them. Four children sit on the ground near them, flanked by two masked militants wearing camouflage uniforms and holding rifles.

A masked militant in front says in the video that Boko Haram kidnapped the French hostages, a family of three adults and four children who were taken from outside a national park in Cameroon's Far North Region on Feb. 19. A black banner in the background, bearing the images of the Quran flanked by two Kalashnikov assault rifles, also resembles a symbol previously used by Boko Haram.

The man says the kidnappings came due to the French military intervention in northern Mali, where its troops have fought with Malian soldiers against Islamic extremists who took over the north in the months following a coup last year. The man also threatens the Nigerian and Cameroonian government, calling on them to release their imprisoned members.

"Let the French president know that he has launched war against Islam and we are fighting him everywhere," the man says in Arabic. "Let him know that we are spread everywhere to save our brothers."

The man threatens to kill the French hostages if the group's demands are not met.

The Associated Press could not immediately confirm the video's authenticity Monday, though it shares similarities with some Boko Haram propaganda videos published in the past.

However, in this video, the man speaks entirely in Arabic, while other Boko Haram videos have its leader Abubakar Shekau also speaking the Hausa language of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north. Boko Haram has not published a video featuring hostages before. The video appears to have been filmed outside, as prayer mats hung in the background sway in a breeze.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement that "for us, these images are horribly shocking. They show cruelty without limits." He said France is fully mobilized to free the hostages but "verifications needed in these circumstances" are under way.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of France told journalists his country's intelligence services are analyzing the video and "examining the nature of the demands."

The French gas group GDF Suez last week identified the captives as an employee working in Yaounde, the Cameroon capital, and his family. The group was vacationing in the north, a company statement said without elaborating. Cameroonian and Nigerian soldiers continue to search for them in the arid, rural border region the two countries share in West Africa.

Waza Park, a natural wildlife reserve in Cameroon's Far North Region attracts mainly foreign tourists. But the area often suffers from raids by bandits lurking in Cameroon, Chad and neighboring Nigeria, who abduct locals for ransom. A local witness told the AP he saw gunmen on motorcycles abduct the tourists on Feb. 19.

Boko Haram — which means "Western education is sacrilege" — has launched a guerrilla campaign of bombings and shootings across Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north. It is blamed for at least 792 killings last year alone, according to an AP count. It is known to have ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, an Algerian-based group that opened a front in Mali.

The sect, which typically speaks to journalists in telephone conference calls at times of its choosing, could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.

Boko Haram remains highly fragmented, without a clear command-and-control structure. One splinter organization launched from Boko Haram appears to be Ansaru, which has claimed the recent north Nigeria kidnappings of a British citizen, a Greek, an Italian, three Lebanese and one Filipino, all employees of a Lebanese construction company called Setraco. The group earlier claimed the kidnapping in December of a French national working on a renewal energy project in Nigeria's northern Katsina state.

However, the video claiming the kidnapping comes after supposed Boko Haram leaders denied this weekend that they took part in the kidnapping of the seven French citizens — leading to more questions about who actually remains in control of the group. Shekau hasn't been seen in a video since late November.

A total of 15 French citizens are currently being held in western Africa. In addition to the seven kidnapped in Cameroon, there is one other in Nigeria and seven thought to be in northern Mali.

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Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .

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