France is verifying the authenticity of a broadcast message by an al-Qaeda off-shoot demanding troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in return for the safety of their nationals kidnapped in Niger.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) also suggested direct negotiations with al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden over hostages' issue. Five French nationals along with two Africans, all employees of French firms Areva and Vinci operating in the mining town of Arlit in Niger were kidnapped on September 16. Bin Laden earlier last month justified the kidnappings and warned of more such attacks. The group in July this year claimed responsibility for the killing of 78-year-old Michel Germaneau, a France national, after taking him hostage.

AQIM's Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud made the comments in an audio broadcast aired by Qatar-based Al Jazeera late on Thursday.

If you want peace for your citizens that we hold hostage, you must withdraw your forces from Afghanistan as soon possible according to a set timetable that you will announce publicly, the broadcast said.

The AQIM chief also added that France would be held responsible by its people, if the offer of negotiations is rejected.  

The summary of the message is very clear, he maintained.  

Photographs of the hostages emerged last month with several armed insurgents in the backdrop. The hostages are believed to be in hilly region of northwestern Mali. Authorities in France stated that efforts have begun to secure the release of the hostages and Paris is in constant touch with the local North African governments. According to a report in Al Arabiya television last month, the AQIM offered to release the hostages if France considered their demand to repeal the ban on the face veils.

In was late last month that Al Jazeera broadcast a message from bin Laden in which he called on the people of France to stop intervening in the affairs of Muslims in North and West Africa.

Responding to the offer, France maintained that their policy cannot be dictated. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Foreign Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie said, France is doing all in its power for the hostages, wherever they are, to be freed safe and sound.