* Al Qaeda leader says Muslims treated unjustly by France
* Demands French withdrawal from Afghanistan
* French minister says statements confirm security threat
By Erika Solomon
DUBAI, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said the kidnapping of five French nationals in Niger last month had been prompted by France's unjust treatment of Muslims, in an audio message aired on Al Jazeera television on Wednesday.
"How is it right for you to occupy our countries and kill our women and children and expect to live in peace and security?" a speaker who sounded like bin Laden said in the message directed to the French people.
"The equation is clear: you are killed as you kill and abducted as you abduct, and as you damage our security we damage your security."
Five French nationals and two Africans were kidnapped in Niger in September, in an operation for which al Qaeda's north African wing (AQIM) claimed responsibility. [ID:nLDE68T1XK]
The September 16 kidnapping was an escalation in the hostilities between the militant group and France. AQIM killed 78-year-old French hostage Michel Germaneau in July after French commandos took part in an unsuccessful raid to free him.
"The way to preserve your security is to end all aspects of your injustices against our Muslim nation, the most important of which is for you to withdraw from Bush's loathed war in Afghanistan," bin Laden said.
French authorities said last month the country was on heightened alert after receiving a tip-off that a suicide bomber was planning to attack its transport system. Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said Wednesday's tape, if authenticated, would vindicate the government's precautions. "If these statements are confirmed, it reminds us that the threat is real and our vigilance must be total," he told a parliamentary commission.
The al Qaeda leader, believed to be hiding in the mountainous border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, also condemned a French ban on full-face Islamic veils.
"You behaved recklessly by banning our fair women from wearing the veil. Is it not our right to expel your invading men by attacking them?" he asked.
His opposition to the veil ban echoes reported demands by the kidnappers for its repeal.
France, whose 5-million-strong Muslim community is Europe's largest, became the first country to introduce a ban on the veil after the Constitutional Council, the country's highest constitutional authority, approved it earlier this month. The Netherlands later announced plans to ban the burqa.
The six men and one Frenchwoman, employees of French firms Areva and Vinci , were kidnapped in Niger before being taken to Mali.
AQIM regularly lambasts France in its public statements, reflecting the roots of the group in former French colony Algeria, which has had uneasy relations with its former ruler since it won independence in 1962 after an eight-year war.
Al Qaeda's core leaders have hit out at France periodically from their presumed hideouts in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.
In August 2009, al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahri criticised France over what he called its hatred for Muslims and issued a list of historical grudges he said Muslims should feel for France's colonial actions in the Middle East and Africa over the centuries.
The anti-French content of al Qaeda propaganda has increased since AQIM's predecessor, the Salafist Group for Combat and Preaching, declared an alliance with al Qaeda in 2006, political analysts say.
Click to view image: 'Bin Laden blames French "injustice" for abductio'
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