LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram was paid an equivalent of around $3.15 million (2 million pounds) by French and Cameroonian negotiators before freeing seven French hostages this month, a confidential Nigerian government report obtained by Reuters said.
The memo does not say who paid the ransom for the family of seven, who were all released on April 19, although it says Cameroon freed some Boko Haram detainees as part of the deal.
France and Cameroon reiterated denials that any ransom was paid. Nigerian authorities declined to comment.
Armed men on motorcycles snatched Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, his wife, brother and the couple’s four young children, the youngest of whom was four years old, on February 19 while they were on holiday near the Waza national park in north Cameroon, some 10 km (six miles) from the Nigerian border. They were believed to have been held in northeast Nigeria.
Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram claimed the capture of the family of Moulin-Fournier, who worked in Cameroon for French utility firm GDF Suez.
French President Francois Hollande at the time denied any money was paid when the family was released on April 19.
The Nigerian report suggests that 1.6 billion CFA francs ($3.15 million) was paid, but that right up until the last minute Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau had insisted on double that, before agreeing to reduce it if some Boko Haram members in Cameroonian jails were freed.
Reacting to the report, a French foreign ministry official said that France has passed a clear message that it does not pay ransoms. Cameroon government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary said “Cameroon did not pay any ransom”.
A spokesman for Nigeria’s government declined to comment.
The report suggests Nigerian security forces decided not to try to rescue the hostages so as not to endanger their lives. A botched rescue attempt of a British and an Italian hostage believed to have been held by Islamist sect Ansaru in March last year resulted in both hostages being killed.
French news network i-tele reported earlier on Friday that a ransom had of $7 million had been paid, suggesting either Cameroon President Paul Biya or GDF-Suez had paid it.
Eight French hostages are being held in the Sahel region, although the fate of one of them is unclear after al-Qaeda’s north African arm last month said it had beheaded Philippe Verdon.
Hollande has said Paris has ended a policy of paying ransoms for hostages, but suspicion that the country still does despite official denials has been a source of tension with the United States.
France brushed off an allegation by a former U.S. diplomat that it paid a $17 million ransom in vain for the release of four hostages abducted in 2010 from Niger.
Hollande told the family of the Sahel hostages in January that the new policy also meant that he had told companies and insurance firms to not pay ransoms.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Tansa Musa in Yaounde; Editing by Michael Roddy