Bin Laden calls on France to withdraw Afghanistan troops

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has called on France to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in exchange for releasing French hostages held by allies of his terror group.

The message came in a new audio message broadcast on Arabic news channel al-Jazeera.

"The exit of your hostages out of the hands of our brothers depends on the exit of your troops from Afghanistan," bin Laden said.

Extremist groups associated with al-Qaida are holding at least seven French hostages, including five in the Sahara Desert and two in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden reminded the French people of President Nicolas Sarkozy's refusal in November to withdraw the French troops from Afghanistan and to negotiate with al-Qaida over the hostages.

"Your president's rejection is a result of being a hireling to America and a green light to kill the hostages ... his stand will cost you a high price on different aspects inside or outside France," he said.

Bin Laden mocked the French, saying they did not have the ability to fight his organisation due to their poor economy.

"The size of your debts and the weakness of your budget will not allow you to open a new front," he said. France has about 3,850 troops in Afghanistan as part of the Nato mission fighting the Taliban. French forces are deployed mainly in districts north and east of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said his nation remains undaunted in its role to help stabilise Afghanistan.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said bin Laden's message was still being authenticated.

"We are determined to continue our efforts on behalf of the Afghan people, with our allies," he said. The al-Qaida leader questioned why the French would consider the resistance against German troops occupying their nation in the Second World War to be heroic while the fight against French and other foreign troops in Afghanistan is labelled terrorism.

"Why do you judge in a double standard?" he said. Intelligence experts say bin Laden and a number of his key lieutenants are hiding in the lawless tribal area of north western Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, where they have evaded efforts to track them down.

Dozens of Muslim militants with European citizenship are believed to be also in the area, training for missions that could include terror attacks in European capitals.