The former American ambassador to Mali says France paid $17 million in ransoms to free French hostages and that the money ended up in the hands of the same al-Qaeda militants the country is fighting now.

In an interview that aired on Friday on iTele, Vicki Huddleston said the money allowed al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch to flourish in Mali.

Claude Gueant, who was the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s chief of staff at the time, on Friday denied that France had ever paid a ransom and said intermediaries had been negotiating to free the hostages.

France launched a military operation on Jan. 11 to help Mali’s government wrest control from Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda. The retreating rebels are holding Western hostages, including eight who are French.

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