PARIS Four French hostages kidnapped two years ago by al Qaeda's North African arm are alive and well but being held in "very difficult" conditions, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday.
In a statement following a meeting with the hostages' families, Fabius said all four were being well fed in captivity, and had access to a doctor and had received letters sent to them by their relatives.
The comment was the first official news on the health of the hostages since Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) accused French authorities last month of failing to engage in negotiations.
"I confirmed to the families that their loved ones are alive and well, even though they are obviously being held in very difficult conditions," Fabius said, adding that France was determined to ensure their release as soon as possible.
The four hostages were working for French nuclear group Areva and Sogea-Sotem, a subsidiary of construction group Vinci in Arlit in Niger, when they were seized by AQIM in September 2010.
AQIM, which operates across the Sahara desert, is holding two more French nationals kidnapped in northeast Mali and said in September it would start killing hostages if Paris mounted a military intervention against the Islamist controlled region.
At the start of December the brother of one of the Niger hostages sent a video to AQIM urging their release and asking why talks were in deadlock.
In an apparent response, al Qaeda issued a video accusing France of ignoring its invitation to negotiate.
"As frustrating as it seems, kidnapping cases need to be handled with the utmost discretion, in the interests of the hostages and of efficiency," Fabius said in the statement.
(Reporting by Vicky Buffery; Editing by Alison Williams)