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Mali Islamists step up threats as France pushes for war

By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked Islamists in Mali threatened on Saturday to "open the doors of hell" for French citizens if France kept pushing for a war to retake the rebel-held north.

The renewed threats against French hostages and expatriates came ahead of a summit of French-speaking nations in Congo, where President Francois Hollande was expected to urge the rapid deployment of an African-led force to rout the Islamists.

The U.N. Security Council called on Friday for an intervention plan to be drawn up within 45 days after passing a French-drafted resolution to revive attempts to end the crisis.

"If he continues to throw oil on the fire, we will send him the pictures of dead French hostages in the coming days," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for Islamist group MUJWA, in an apparent reference to four French nationals seized in neighboring northern Niger in 2010.

"He will not be able to count the bodies of French expatriates across West Africa and elsewhere," Hamaha said by telephone.

MUJWA is among the Islamist groups that have controlled the northern two-thirds of Mali since fighters swept the territory in April following a coup in the capital Bamako.

Regional and western powers are now mulling an intervention to retake the zone, with former colonial ruler France seeking swift military action by regional bloc ECOWAS.

The U.N. Security Council urged African regional groups and the United Nations to come up with an intervention plan, which it could then consider.

Al Qaeda's north African wing has threatened repeatedly to kill French hostages if Paris tries to mount a military intervention in Mali.

Seven workers for French firm Areva were seized in northern Niger in 2010, and all but four have since been released.

Hamaha said that Islamists in the Sahara desert were largely funded by ransom payments from France and other western nations

"The top country who finances the jihadis is France," he said, adding that MUJWA could try to kidnap Hollande himself. "I wonder what the international community would say if we took the French president hostage."

(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)