OSAMA bin Laden told France yesterday that al-Qa'ida would kill its citizens until it pulled out of Afghanistan and dropped its law against veils worn by Muslim women.
The warning on audio tape, posted on the website of al-Jazeera television, was aimed at raising pressure on President Sarkozy after al-Qa'ida's affiliate in North Africa kidnapped seven workers at a French uranium mine in Niger last month.
"How can it be right that you participate in the occupation of our lands, support the Americans in the killing of our women and children and yet want to live in peace?" asked a voice purported to be bin Laden's.
"It is a simple equation: as you kill, you will be killed. As you capture, you will be captured. And as you threaten our security, your security will be threatened."
Bin Laden singled out a French law, passed this month and due to take effect in a year, that bars women from covering their faces in public places.
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"As you wrongly have decided that you have the right to ban Muslim women from wearing the veil, is it not our right to drive out your conquerors by killing them?"
Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algerian-led group that has adopted the al-Qa'ida "brand", has made similar threats since it abducted five French citizens and two African employees from the Niger mining town run by Areva, the French nuclear giant.
In July the same group killed a 78-year-old French aid worker whom it had taken hostage three months before. It said that the killing was in retaliation for the deaths of six al-Qaeda members in a French-backed military operation in Mali. Islamist rebels in Afghanistan have also been holding two French television journalists hostage since last December.
The Elysee Palace said that it had no intention of responding to the warning from bin Laden, which officials said had been authenticated. "We have already said that the threat is high ... We are not going to react to every communique," an aide to Mr Sarkozy said.
Brice Hortefeux, the Interior Minister, told parliament: "We do know that the [terrorist] threat is real and vigilance must be total."
France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population, has been on high alert for terrorist attacks on its mainland territory for the past six weeks. It received tips from Algeria and Saudi Arabia about a possible imminent strike.
The internal security service said that it had picked up information on preparations for an attack by jihadist fighters who had returned from training in Pakistan.
Links between the Maghreb al-Qa'ida, a ruthless, home-grown group, and bin Laden's Pakistan-based organisation are believed to be tenuous. They have united in common cause in an attempt to destabilise France, the former colonial power in Algeria and neighbouring states.
Mr Sarkozy has said that France is in a state of war with the Maghreb group and has sent special forces and intelligence officers into Mauritania and Mali. Although French public opinion is opposed to the presence of about 4,000 French military personnel in the Nato-led operation in Afghanistan, MrSarkozy has promised to keep them there until the Nato mission is deemed to be completed.