One of Mali's top jihadist groups on Tuesday claimed the kidnapping of a team of Red Cross workers who had been reported missing in the country's north.
A leader for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a splinter group of Al-Qaeda's regional franchise, told AFP the five Malians "are alive and in good health".
"Thanks to God we seized a 4X4 (vehicle) of the enemies of Islam with their accomplices," MUJAO's Yoro Abdoulsalam said, contacted by telephone from Bamako.
He said his group was holding the five reported missing Monday by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Geneva-based organisation said it was looking into the claim.
MUJAO is one of the groups that occupied the north of Mali in 2012 before they were driven from the region's main cities by a French-led military intervention launched in January 2013.
Cheick Oumar Diarrah, Mali's minister for reconciliation and development of the country's north, told a news conference in Bamako that the government had "launched the necessary actions... to find those who have been abducted."
ICRC spokesman Alexis Heeb told AFP on Tuesday he could not confirm the claim but that his organisation was "in contact" with the group and several others in Mali.
Heeb had said Monday that four ICRC staff members and a veterinarian from another aid organisation went missing Saturday along with their vehicle on the road between the towns of Kidal and Gao.
All five individuals are Malian citizens.
"At this stage we're exploring all possibilities. We're extremely worried and we're contacting everyone to try to localise them," Heeb said at the time.
Christoph Luedi, head of the ICRC Mali delegation, said in a statement that the group was "on the way from Kidal to their base in Gao".
For security reasons, ICRC teams make regular contact every few hours with their base when they are on mission, and the team had done so for part of its journey.
ICRC operations in Mali range from visiting people detained during the country's conflict to providing aid to the hundreds of thousands of people made homeless by fighting.
Mali descended into chaos when Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups took over the north after a military coup in March 2012 far to the south in the capital Bamako. The Islamists later routed the Tuareg who made a comeback following the French intervention.
The humanitarian crisis sparked by the conflict came on top of years of drought in the Sahel region that have left 800,000 Malians relying on food aid.
The Islamists started an advance on Bamako that led to a military intervention by former colonial power France in January 2013.
--France's 'key' role--
French troops pushed the Al-Qaeda-linked militants out of northern towns early last year and have kept up operations against residual groups of insurgents.
France is winding down its force from a peak of around 5,000 soldiers but is to keep 1,000 troops in Mali beyond the spring.
In Washington on Tuesday the US top diplomat for Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, praised France's role in helping to quell unrest and extremist violence in Mali as well as in the Central African Republic.
"The French role has been key to achieving success in Mali," she said as French President Francois Hollande was welcomed on a state visit.
The UN peacekeepers took over security in July last year from a pan-African military mission which had been supporting the French troops.
The UN mission played a key security role in presidential polls last year which saw former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita become the country's first democratically elected leader since the 2012 coup.
The kidnapping claim comes against the backdrop of tensions in the Gao region, where several residents said the MUJAO is returning to the scene.